Raising Arizona (1987): A Clairvoyant Tale of Middle America

This month, my instinctive inclination is to lay the acclaim at the feet of a lesser known masterpiece, Raising Arizona. I must have been six or seven when the Coen brothers serendipitously entered my life in the form of this arresting film. Its pitch perfect storyboard was mesmerising and it was this film that I would compare everything else to. For my sins, I continued to watch the likes of Mean Girls with the crowd; but for my sanity and soul I harped back to Raising Arizona. Through young eyes, this Coen classic was a thrilling assault on the senses; twinges of bold, visceral colours propel the film into a surreal visual realm and the unforgettable, almighty speeches and character ticks left little to the imagination. The yodelling soundtrack complements the story they wish to tell, by wrapping it up in their wacky tale of ordinary folk playing cowboys and Indians. This must be what adult cartoons are like, I remember thinking. If only that were true. The Coen’s call on their clairvoyant powers here, as Raising Arizona makes for considered viewing when juxtaposed against the backdrop of the current political climate with Trump’s set of values at the helm.

Time is precious, so here’s a few reasons why you should watch this month’s oldie: Raising Arizona (1987).

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A Zany Trip from Beginning to End

The premise itself is wonderfully zany and it’s this Ripley’s Believe It Or Not element that transforms it from good to great. The film follows H.I McDunnagh (known affectionately as Hi for the film’s entirety and portrayed superbly by none other than Nicholas Cage), an ex-con who repeatedly gets stung for armed robberies of minor mom and pop stores and 7-11’s in rural Arizona. Hi is a complete and utter hopeless degenerate in the eyes of the prison board at least. In iconic Coen sequences, the prison board looks down on Hi from an oppressive angle, where he repeatedly assures them that he is a reformed man. Hi falls for none other than Ed (short for Edwina and played by the fiery presence of Holly Hunter), the prison guard who has overseen the fingerprinting and mugshotting of her future lover a fair few times after his various stints in and out of the slammer. In a glorious manner the two set up a life together in their tin-can trailer in the midst of the Arizona desert, which looks like it could have been a set piece out of The Martian.

The duties of marriage inevitably take hold and Ed quickly identifies herself as a latent mother, ready to welcome a child into their new life. After comical sequences in doctor’s offices and adoption agencies, hindered respectively by Ed’s infertility and Hi’s criminality, it becomes apparent that the young couple may not be ready for children – in the conventional sense that is, ‘biology and the prejudice of others conspired to keep us childless,’ Hi poetically summarises. A wealthy furniture merchant, Nathan Arizona enters the picture at the pinnacle of their struggles by virtue of the medium of a corny Southern TV commercial for his furniture depot, Unpainted Arizona. ‘If you can find a better price then my name ain’t Nathan Arizona.’ The seed is planted and within days the Arizona family fortuitously welcome five healthy baby boys, known as the Arizona quintuplets. Hi hatches a plan that oozes as much love and well-meaning for his wife’s happiness as it does a yearning to return to his criminal past and as it turns out, each cajole the other to abduct one of the Arizona quintuplets. Hi finally returns with a strawberry blonde snapper as a result of the nursery’s open window and the couple are inconsolable with joy as Hi proclaims, ‘Goddamit, we got us some family here!’

Hi’s biblical, qualified narration throughout the film is one of the key staples which binds these zany events together. His poetic musings draw parallels with Paul Schrader’s staple archetype of ‘a man in his room,’ as their script is as much a study on Hi’s viewpoint as it is on wider America. His nightmares conjure up insidious forces which speak to the anxiety of living straight and narrow on the outside and the forces appropriately rise in intensity at the same level as Nicholas Cage’s unkempt hair. A leathered and lawless nunchuck-yielding biker hitman, Hi’s prison comrades and Nathan Arizona himself all end up in pursuit of Hi and Ed to retrieve the child they’ve claimed as their own.

The Magic of the Periphery

The Coen magic comes not from the premise itself but from the way in which they place their characters into a tree, before coaxing them to get out of said tree. It’s the fallout of the plot where they truly shine, which allows their characters to display their unique idiosyncrasies in gloriously orchestrated sequences.

In recent months, #MeToo and #TimesUp have in some form highlighted the dearth of in-depth female characterisations, but if the crusaders of the cause were to take a strong dose of irony tablets they’d quickly find that this is endemic in most films regardless of gender. To find a film these days that has a protagonist with a fleshed out character trajectory is a rare enough find without mentioning the dire excuse for supporting characters we’re meant to put up with. That’s where the Coen’s have always succeeded in breaking the mould – their supporting characters regularly eclipse the main cast. Hi’s two prison inmate comrades are phenomenal, played by baby-faced John Goodman and William Forsythe, having been cast by the Coen’s precisely for their cherubic appearances. Their delivery is superb and they own any Coen line that is thrown their way: ‘So you busted out of prison?’ ‘We felt that the institution no longer had anything to offer us.’ Those on the periphery of the Coen’s vision are nearly as memorable as the protagonists: an anomaly in itself.

The Real American Dream

We follow Hi and Ed on their whirlwind adventure, resolved in their simple quest to set up a home and raise a family. We witness a glimpse of the American Dream, attempting to grow within the constraints of Reagan’s America. In one outstanding sequence, with their new child in tow, Hi takes it upon himself to immediately provide for his family by robbing yet another convenience store. Nicholas Cage bombing down Main Street with a pair of panty hose on his face and clutching a pair of Huggies makes for phenomenal viewing. Only the Coen’s could inject the rampant consumerism of American society into a bite size film such as this. At the end of the day, Hi wanted the Huggies for his family and he took whatever means necessary to acquire them.

Nicholas Cage is extraordinary as H.I McDunnagh, the voice of America is delivered through his disenchanted, rugged Southern drawl. He captures the plight of middle America, a group of individuals perpetually tasked with chasing the orgiastic green light whilst simultaneously expected to live by the book. Hi’s history of incarceration deems him unfit to act within society and this is illuminated when he tries to start afresh. It’s this incongruent dichotomy in which Hi and Ed find themselves wedged between. It’s like a modern parable; the ex-con and his law enforcement wife are bound together, attempting to make sense of the contradiction of the American Dream and their place within it. ‘I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sunbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno. They say he’s a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused.

That element of Trump’s America is echoed here, in that you can get what you want when you want it but are guarded by limitations.‘Why should some people have so many,’ Hi rationalises, prior to kidnapping an Arizona quintuplet, ‘while others have so few.’ The Coen’s spoke to that burgeoning idea when they used H.I McDunnagh to illustrate their frustrations with America in a humourous way. The Coen’s brought a comedic voice to a disillusioned cohort of society and their work is as poignant as ever now that there’s another greying fellow at the Oval Office; it’s just 30 years apart. That’s why beautiful oldies like Raising Arizona are every bit as profound and telling as they were originally: because everything changes, and nothing changes.

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