Joel and Ethan Coen are filmmakers that have their names synonymous with quality, even if a few of their films were clunkers (namely Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, two films I am still quite fond of). They have god-like status nowadays, but it wasn’t always that way. Therefore, it stands to reason that their early work will undoubtedly be fascinating. Raising Arizona is a lovable, endearing comedy film that shows that the Coen brothers were as brilliant and ambitious early on in their career as they are today.
For Herbert “H.I.” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), petty crime is somewhat of a hobby – at the outset of this film, H.I. is on his way to prison – and over the course of the next ten minutes, he is released and recaptured a further two times. Along the way, he encounters Edwina (Holly Hunter), going by the simple epithet of “Ed”, who threatens to make an honest man out of H.I. and eventually she and the apparently rehabilitated HI fall in love and marry, and eventually she quits her job to be a mother – only to discover that she is infertile, and H.I.’s chequered past holds a challenge for them, as they are considered a less-than-ideal pair of candidates for adoption. Their only hope comes in the form of the “Arizona quints”, a litter of five babies born to furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). In order to supply his wife with the baby she wants H.I. steals one of them – but they soon discover that raising any baby consists of challenges, and when you are also the people who stole one of the children of one of the state’s most wealthy men, you have quite a lot of work on your hands.
Raising Arizona is one of the pinnacles of the Coen brothers’ trademark style – it bears everything we expect from them – an original story, a dark sense of humor and utterly beautiful filmmaking. To see them having developed their style so early on in their career was very comforting – it showed that they were in full control of their skills, and even if Raising Arizona is somewhat flawed at times, it bears the traits that the Coen brothers would go onto to hone and perfect in later films. The best way to look at a film made by the Coen brothers is as a product of several individual entities working in perfect synchronicity to create something unique and original – there are so many elements of Raising Arizona that make it one of the best films the brothers ever made.
It is very easy to look at Nicolas Cage’s career and laugh – how does one of the most esteemed and acclaimed actors of his generation make such bad decisions later on in his career? To be frank, very few actors have stooped as low in movie choices as Cage – which is somewhat tragic considering Cage has some genuinely great films in his career. It stands to reason that a film like Raising Arizona will be an interesting watch for the modern viewer, as anyone who knows anything about cinema over the past thirty years will know that Nicolas Cage’s career has been somewhat colorful and diverse (both in terms of genre and in outright quality) – yet Raising Arizona doesn’t bear any resemblance to the lazier Cage we’ve seen in recent years (who is still able to make a good movie every now and then, but not at the same rate as before). In Raising Arizona, we see Nicolas Cage as we rarely see him – self-deprecating, hilarious and very endearing. There isn’t a trace of the overly-serious, dour actor he would seem to become. His performance as H.I. is terrific – he plays with the Coen brothers’ world easily, integrating into the absurdity of their story without much effort. It is a performance that allows Cage to be both a live wire, as well as showing his more mellow, endearing side. Cage really did give everything to this performance, and considering it was so early on in his career (being one of his first leading roles), it was truly remarkable.
Cage’s co-lead was Holly Hunter, one of the most talented actresses working today, and someone I wasn’t so entirely sure was adept at comedy – she has done some work in the genre before, but she is mostly known as a dramatic actress (just like Cage, yet some of his choices have been far more hilarious that would be polite to say). Raising Arizona offers her the chance to be completely funny – and she rises to the occasion. Playing a woman who so badly wants to be a mother, she manages a performance that is broadly hilarious as well as deeply moving. While all the other performances in this film have their weak moments, Hunter is consistent throughout, giving a performance that alternates between being beautifully grounded and hilariously outrageous. It is a solid, meaningful performance by an actress that hardly gets her due as a masterful performer.
As always, the Coen brothers assembled a great supporting cast for this film – and it saw the introduction of perhaps their greatest collaborator, and the return of another one of their most important friends. The latter being Frances McDormand, who was married to Joel Coen, and go on to be a valuable member of their ensemble. She has very little to do in this film, appearing in only one scene, but she is dynamite in the role. This film introduced John Goodman into the world of the Coen brothers. Here he plays Gale Snoats, the villain of the film. The best part about Raising Arizona is that it features villains that are so quintessentially Coen-esque, meaning they are dumb and idiotic, but still strangely sinister. Gale, along with his brother Evelle (William Forsythe) is a weirdly compelling villain, who has murky motives which he obviously doesn’t execute very well. Goodman is such a great character actor, and even in this early role, there was proof that no one brings out the best in Goodman quite like the Coen brothers.
The Coen brothers always make a visually stunning film. That is perhaps the most interesting part of their filmmaking, other than their diverse stories and fascinating and well-chosen casts – their films, regardless of the genre it falls into, or the era or location they are set in, always look incredible. This isn’t a mistake – the brothers always choose the absolute best cinematographers. To be fair, for every one of their films, except for four, they have collaborated with Roger A. Deakins – the outliers to this pattern were Inside Llewyn Davis (photographed by the extraordinary Bruno Delbonnel), Burn After Reading (photographed by Emmanuel Lubezski, the only person that can give Deakins a run for his money as best living cinematographer), and the three films they made with Barry Sonnefeld – Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and of course Raising Arizona (to be honest, the Deakins discussion didn’t lead anywhere, I just really wanted to praise him). Sonnenfeld, who would go on to have a prolific career as a filmmaker, managed to encapsulate the sheer beauty of the arid Arizona landscape that made Raising Arizona far more than just another comedy film – if the brothers were trying to make some weird concoction of classic screwball comedies mixed with Southern Gothic aesthetics, then Sonnenfeld captured it perfectly. While it may not be as dauntingly impressive as Fargo and No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona has a steadily stunning approach to how it is filmed. The robbery and subsequent chase scene in this film will always be one of the best sequences the Coen brothers ever made, and that is because of the seamless collaboration between the directors and the cinematographer.
The music in a film has always played a very important role in all of the films by the Coen brothers (and in the case of No Country for Old Men, the absence of a score served the same purpose), and Raising Arizona features a collaboration with Carter Burwell, a prolific and iconic composer who has made some truly extraordinary scores for some very special films. Raising Arizona has a score that may not be completely noticeable, but combining Burwell’s original work with pre-existing music makes it very memorable. I haven’t been able to get the yodeling that opens and closes this film out of my head, nor have I been able to forget the music used during the more emotional moments of this film. The score is used very well, and becomes an important element of this film because it helps drive the plot forward and lend atmospheric relevance to many of the sequences in this film.
Raising Arizona is a very funny film. It is amongst the most outrageously hilarious film I have ever seen – but like any great comedy film, it doesn’t just base itself on being completely outrageous (for an example of when this does happen, look at my review for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s memorable disaster, Satan’s Brew, which tried to be funny without even an inch of pathos) – yet, there are moments of this film that are genuinely moving. It has so much emotional resonance, and the final moments, where Cage’s character dreams about the future he would want for him and his wife, as well as those around him, I actually teared up a little bit. There is no way to deny that Raising Arizona is an enormously hilarious film, but it has an emotional gravitas that qualifies it as a truly heartfelt film.
Raising Arizona is a comedic masterpiece – the performances are as mesmerizing as they are hilarious, and the film as a whole is hysterically funny. The Coen brothers are unbelievably talented, and even so early on in their filmmaking career, they had an astute sense of the human condition, and have always shown a keen interest in humanity, whether it be through their amusing comedies or their brutal dramas. They are truly masters of their craft, and Raising Arizona is them at their very best – strange, endearing and filled with strong performances and beautiful visuals. Raising Arizona is such an extraordinary film, and deserves its place in the canon of great comedy films.