The Coen Brothers’ RAISING ARIZONA (1987)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Out of Competition)

For their follow-up, the Coens approached Circle Films with a long-gestating script of theirs titled “The Hudsucker Proxy”.  The anticipated budget proved too high for Circle to reasonably cover, however, so the Coens turned their attention to a much smaller and more realistic idea.  Influenced by the madcap capers of Preston Sturges, they wanted their second feature to be almost the polar opposite of BLOOD SIMPLE.’s moody tone–in other words, they wanted to make a zany, live-action cartoon that would illustrate the comedic side of their artistic identity.  Armed with a significantly higher budget than their last go-round (about $5 million), the Coens ventured back out into the high deserts of the American southwest for a 10-week shoot that would result in 1987’s RAISING ARIZONA.  Well aware of the phenomenon of “the sophomore slump”, the Coens poured as much style, energy, and pure eye candy as they could into their second large-scale effort, and would come out the other end with a divisive heist comedy that demonstrated the sheer breadth of their directorial range.

Thanks to the critical success of BLOOD SIMPLE., the Coens were able to secure an eclectic group of fairly well-known faces for RAISING ARIZONA.  With his ridiculous mutton-chops and meth-head stare, a young Nicolas Cage is perfectly cast as career screw-up H.I. McDonnough.  Cage has acquired something of a reputation as a problem collaborator, but there’s no denying his actions come from a place of unbridled passion and eccentric conviction.  The Coens reportedly had a tense, yet respectful, working relationship with Cage, who would grow frustrated when they declined to consider the various ideas he kept bringing to the table.  The role of H.I.’s wife, a sweet police officer named Edwina, was written specifically for Holly Hunter, who finally made herself available to work with the Coens after turning them down for BLOOD SIMPLE.  She’s a great foil for Cage, with a reserved nature that helps keep the film grounded and makes her eventual breakdown into hysterics even funnier.  Together, this oddball pair transforms into a couple of folk heroes, out to right what they perceive to the natural injustices of the world– like, say, the local furniture tycoon’s wife giving birth to quintuplets when she herself can’t bear any.

John Goodman is a common fixture throughout the Coens’ work, and he makes his first appearance in their filmography here as Gale Snoats, an old friend of H.I.’s who has sprung himself out prison along with his younger brother Evelle, played by William Forsythe.  Together, these two serve up as much trouble for our two leads as they do laughter for the audience.  Randall “Tex” Cobb plays a wild bounty hunter named Leonard Smalls, or to put it another way, The Lone Horseman Of The Apocalypse.  Looking like he’s just walked off the set of THE ROAD WARRIOR, Cobb is a fierce presence that puts the fear of God in people’s hearts as he tears through the desert on his chopper.  The character is cartoonishly over-the-top, all fire and brimstone, but he works well within the film because he’s meant to be a manifestation of McDonnough’s own outlandish imagination.  A few familiar faces from BLOOD SIMPLE. return, albeit in smaller cameo roles.  Frances McDormand shows up briefly as Dot, a chatty friend of Ed’s with a plentiful supply of overbearing motherly advice.  M. Emmett Walsh also appears as a fellow worker at the steel drilling plant where H.I. is employed.  His face may be covered in grime, but that unmistakable laugh of his cuts through the clutter of noisy machinery like a laser.  The characters’ florid dialogue style marks a stark departure from the gruff spareness of BLOOD SIMPLE., which was engineered by the Coens to be a mix of the local Arizonian dialect and the particular language tics they’d absorb from their reading material– namely, magazines and the Bible.

The Coens re-team with Barry Sonnenfeld to create a distinctly different look for RAISING ARIZONA, which speaks to their ability to handle diverse visual styles and camerawork.  Whereas BLOOD SIMPLE. was all pervading darkness and wells of concentrated light, RAISING ARIZONA’s 1.85:1 35mm film image is brightly lit and obscenely saturated with color like a Tex Avery cartoon.  The brothers frame the action much wider this time around, with a deep focus that highlights an exaggerated theatricality to returning production designer Jane Mursky’s sets.  The camerawork is exceedingly more dynamic than BLOOD SIMPLE.’s, showcasing the Coens’ technical dexterity and brilliance via sweeping crane and dolly shots and frenetic action sequences laced with slapstick humor.  The influence of Sam Raimi is further felt in RAISING ARIZONA through a small number of shots that adopt an EVIL DEAD-style perspective, wherein the camera rushes at breakneck speed towards a target, jumping and gliding over many obstacles along the way.  Interestingly enough, RAISING ARIZONA is one of the few Coen films that the brothers did not edit themselves, instead handing off that particular honor to Michael R. Miller.

Carter Burwell returns to provide the score, a folksy theme comprised of banjos, whistles, and full-throated yodels.  It perfectly complements both the absurd nature of the story as well as the redneck qualities of its characters.  Pieces of Beethoven’s classical works also dot the film and provide an ironic, high-class counterpoint to the proceedings.

Several thematic ideas and images that the Coens established with BLOOD SIMPLE. can also be found in RAISING ARIZONA, further coalescing their particular aesthetic into its own highly identifiable and contained universe.  The film takes place decidedly within Middle America, in a vast expanse of desert that the coastal elite would know as “flyover country”.  The protagonists are, for lack of a better term, trailer trash, and their aspirations reach only as high as creating a smsll family for themselves.  McDonnough is an outsider in his own environment, deemed unfit by the government to adopt a baby because of his expansive prison record.  There’s no struggle between the rich and the poor here; everyone is more or less on the same socioeconomic level.  Even the local business tycoon derives his modest wealth from a decidedly unglamorous market: unpainted furniture.  Convenience stores, trailer homes, references to the Bible, and even tattooed images of The Road Runner contribute to the Coen’s growing portfolio of Americana-inspired imagery while giving the film a unique visual identity all its own.

RAISING ARIZONA screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, marking the Coens’ debut on the world stage.  It secured studio distribution from Warner Brothers, thus bringing the brothers to the attention of the moviegoing public beyond just the indie community.  The film received mixed reviews, with some critics turned off by the abrupt tonal reversal from BLOOD SIMPLE.  However, RAISING ARIZONA has persisted through the years, slowly accumulating a loyal cult following typical of the brothers’ other lesser-known works.  There’s no denying that the film is wildly entertaining– the cast and crew are clearly having so much fun with the material that it’s impossible to not get swept away in their infectious enthusiasm.  As to the film’s actual quality, it has many flaws inherent in the subject matter and approach– albeit the brothers Coen make a full-throated attempt to transcend these flaws at every opportunity.  For that reason, the film has aged much better than it has any right to.  The fact that it has cultivated a small but dedicated following also speaks to the film’s understated strengths.  All told, RAISING ARIZONA– while it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of BLOOD SIMPLE– is a strong entry in the Coens’ canon, and its distinctive tone and energy is a benchmark for all those who might follow in those wild footsteps.

RAISING ARIZONA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Twentieth Century Fox.