Sunday, 5 May 2013

Film Review | Raising Arizona (1987)

The story goes that Ethan and Joel Coen wanted their second feature film to be as different to their debut, Blood Simple, as they could make it. If that was indeed the case then Raising Arizona in that respect is a near-comprehensive success, being as it is a fast-paced, madcap comedy packed with cartoonish characters and oodles of symbolic references. But whilst Raising Arizona in many ways distances itself from the Coen Brothers' first film, there are plenty of stylistic choices which make it clear "The Two-Headed Director" of Ethan and Joel are once again in the driving seat.

Raising Arizona regularly flies in the face of cinematic conventions. The opening credits appear over ten minutes into the film's running time, by which point we've seen H. I. "Hi" McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) go to prison three times; marry Ed (Holly Hunter), the officer who takes his mugshot after each arrest; unsuccessfully try to start a family; and set in motion a plan to steal one of the "Arizona Quints" recently born to furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife. The rest of the film doesn't trouble itself much with plot, allowing itself to meander here and there following the lives of the McDunnoughs and focusing on the problems Hi constantly faces in looking after his infant "son", keeping his wife happy, and staying on the straight and narrow.

This is the Coens' first screwball comedy, a subgenre they would revisit more than once later in their careers, but their character-driven inaugural effort still stands up over twenty-five years after its release thanks to the vibrant and at times surreal script as well as comprehensively excellent performances from the cast. Cage deserves high praise for his turn as antihero Hi, achieving a satisfying balance between the comedic and sympathetic throughout. Hunter also does well developing a charming on-screen relationship with Cage whilst impressing with some delightfully over-the-top comedy moments of her own. Able support comes from the double act of William Forsythe and future multiple-Coen-collaborator John Goodman as escaped convicts the Snoats brothers, acting for most of the film like a pair of miniature devils on the shoulder of Hi as well as carrying out one of the most memorably bungled bank robberies in movie history.

The Coens pack their second film chock-full of intriguing questions for the audience. Why does Leonard Smalls' (Randall "Tex" Cobb) name recall the man-child protagonist of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men? Is there an intertextuality between this work and Steinbeck's as characters from both unsuccessfully strive for the American Dream? Or is it just sly ironic humour - Steinbeck's Lennie has an obsession with rabbits throughout his novel, and Smalls' introductory scene in the Coens' film sees him dispatch an innocent bunny with a disproportionate amount of firepower. The Coens' despicable bounty hunter poses another enigma later on when it is revealed he shares a tattoo with Hi during a punch-up between the two. Does this represent a duality between the characters, with Smalls reflecting what Hi could have become had he not strived to follow the path of good? Or is it just another piece of surreal Coen humour, an unexpected way of halting the violence for a second as the two characters display just as much bafflement at the revelation as the audience?

Perhaps this is the beauty of Raising Arizona. It's not the Coen's tightest or most powerful work; but it can be studied and picked apart to your heart's content, whilst at the same time providing genuine highly-crafted entertainment that can be enjoyed without having to analyse it in any way. Most of all, it's arguably the first Coen Brothers movie that feels like a "Coen Brothers movie" through and through, with all the directorial and artistic panache that you'd expect. It's a film best summed up by its own theme song: Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" played on the banjo Deliverance-style. It could be a well-thought-out comment on the characters' ideologies within the film, or it could just be a Coen-flavoured oddity. Either way, it's a complete hoot.


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