The Coen Brothers have a long and established career of blending the mad-cap with the macabre, with their sophomore film ‘Raising Arizona’ (1987) being a typical example of the brother’s unique sensibilities and eccentric tastes. The film stars Nicolas Cage as small-time criminal Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough, who meets his future wife, policewoman Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter) after she takes his mug-shot following a recent arrest.
Soon after the mix-matched couple get hitched, they move into a desert mobile home and Hi, in attempt to ‘go straight’, gets a job in a machine shop. Everything seems to be going smoothly for the couple until they discover that Ed is infertile, and that, because of Hi’s arrest record, the couple are incapable of adopting a child. Desperate to start a family together, the duo decide to “borrow” one of the “Arizona Quints,” sons of locally famous furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), and raise him as their own.
Things only go from weird to worse when Hi’s prison buddies, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), escape from prison (accompanied by some of the strangest and nigh non-sequitur screaming ever caught on tape) and seek out Hi’s place to lay low from the authorities. Worse, a self-proclaimed and rather feral looking bounty-hunter named Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) decides to find the missing child with the intention of selling it on the black-market after he fails to secure reward payment from Nathan Arizona. Once the true identity of Hi and Ed’s child is revealed to outside parties, chaos ensues and humorous exchanges aren’t far behind as the Coens’ deliver their trademark brand of dark quirk.
Principal star Nicholas Cage is an interesting actor — interesting in that when he’s good, he’s amazing (see ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, ‘Adaptation’, ‘Lord of War’), and when’s bad, he’s insanely awful (see ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Ghost Rider’, ‘The Family Man’). Fortunately, Cage’s performance in ‘Raising Arizona’ leans more towards the former than the latter, with his weird energy and laconic drawl being a perfect fit for the Coens’ equally strange and off-beat picture. Holly Hunter does an equally commendable job as “Ed”, Hi’s put-upon firecracker of a wife, the chemistry shared between Cage and her believable and seemingly organic as they attempt to make the best of their situation.
A perfect example of this quirky chemistry (which seems to permeate throughout the entirety of the film) cane be found in the scene (which is perhaps one of the best known set-pieces from the film) where Hi, Ed and their baby pull into a convenience store to pick up some diapers. Hi, giving in to temptation, resorts to his old felonious ways and ends up attempting to rob the store. However Ed, upon witnessing Hi’s robbery through the window, becomes enraged and immediately drives away, leaving Hi stranded as the clerk hits the emergency button contacting the police and then pulls out a rifle.
The wild chase sequence that follows is one of cinematic gold as the camera cuts rapidly back between H.I. running from the police through the streets and houses of the immediate neighborhood while Ed, after having a change of heart, turns the car around and tries to find and pick up her husband before the police do. The manic energy combined with the odd yodeling-like song playing on the film’s soundtrack creates a madcap and frenzied chase sequence that’s both impressive on a technical scale and a manically funny sequence that remains relevant and humorous even today.
However, despite the impressive work of the film’s principal cast (and its secondary actors), it feels like there’s something missing from ‘Raising Arizona’ that’s a bit hard to pin down. Other critics have occasionally derided the film for choosing “style over substance”, and while such a criticism is apt for this particular Coen outing, the truth is that even when the Coen Brothers make a subpar film it’s still far superior to the lesser efforts of other directors.
Another issue with ‘Raising Arizona’ is that it might be ‘too madcap’ and ‘cartoonish’, that its wild energy and manic characters are too unrealistic and underdeveloped to be considered believable. Although all of the Coens’ film’s contain a series of “quirky” characters, most of them are still grounded enough in reality that we can find them realistic despite their eccentricities — by contrast, ‘Raising Arizona’ features a character (played Cobb) who’s so evil that he causes a desert flower to wilt and catch afire simply by driving past it on his motorcycle.
‘Raising Arizona’ might not be one of the Coens’ best efforts (see ‘No Country for Old Men’) or their funniest (see ‘The Big Lebowski’), but its optimistic atmosphere, quirky aesthetics, and odd assemblage of actors make it a more than commendable and enjoyable film, one that’s full of that distinctive Coen charm that makes their films impossible to hate or mistake as another’s efforts.
Find the nearest Blockbuster near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.