Whereas Blood Simple demonstrated how the Coen Brothers could handle gritty violence, their sophomore effort Raising Arizona (1987) showed what they could do with cartoonish violence. Even though the movie revolves around the kidnapping of a baby, armed robberies, and a Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, it is madcap fun from beginning to end. Nicolas Cage, nowadays known for throwing everything including the kitchen sink in his performances, makes for a great lead in the pantheon of Coen characters even if this has been their only collaboration so far.
This was another instance of being able to mix work with pleasure, since back when I was at the Université de Sherbrooke I took a Scriptwriting course and part of our homework included doing an analysis of Raising Arizona. It is hard to dispute the educational component of such an assignment, since this is one of the Coen Brothers’ lesser successful films, at least financially, and we certainly all learned a lot watching it for the very first time.
Among other things we learned how visually creative Barry Sonnenfeld can be with his cinematography, much like with the original Evil Dead movie, but we especially learned about the Brothers’ skills as screenwriters. Admire the humour in the dialogue when a bank robber barks to customers to freeze and get on the ground and one customer responds with: “Well, which is it, young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if'n I freeze, I can't rightly drop. And if'n I drop, I'm a-gonna be in motion.”
The very first lines of dialogue do a good job of introducing the viewer to Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough (Cage), a convenience store robber and repeat offender in the dry state of Arizona. Hi decides to make a true attempt at turning a new leaf after marrying, of all people, the police officer who would take his mug shot every time he got arrested. Hi and officer Edwina (Holly Hunter) move to a mobile home in the desert with every intention of living an honest life and have a few children. Hi makes an effort for the first part, but the second part seems unfortunately biologically impossible.
Unable to adopt because of Hi’s lengthy criminal record, the couple decide if they can’t have a baby they will steal one from someone who has a spare. That person is furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) who has recently had five babies, an event that made the local news. Stealing one of his newborn children is obviously a horrible thing to do, and yet somehow the Coen Brothers manage to keep the tone light enough that we are still laughing at the kidnappers while feeling some sympathy for their predicaments. It helps that Hi looks like a complete buffoon while trying to rob diapers at a convenience store, resulting in a hilarious chase involving cops, dogs, and an angry Edwina behind the wheel of the getaway vehicle.
Then there is the fact that Hi and Edwina are not getting off that easy with their crime. Their kidnapping attracts the attention of bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobs) a man so evil Hi has a vision of him in which he hurls grenades at innocent bunny rabbits. Further complicating things are Hi’s former cellmates, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) who have decided now is a good time to drop by for a visit after busting out of prison. Or as they put it, they felt the institution no longer had anything to offer them so they left on their own recognizance.
Raising Arizona is a prime example of why it is sometimes so difficult to pin down the style of the Coen Brothers. They have done a Western, a drama, but also a crime comedy film in which baby snatchers are somehow sympathetic. This may not be the highlight of their illustrious film career, but it certainly has their names all over it.