USA / France, 1987
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox DVD
There is a key scene in the first half of Raising Arizona that exposes the central target of the film’s thematic scope. Watching it with knowledge of this film’s topic the metaphor underlying this scene becomes evident.
Convicts Gale and Evelle Snopes, like many convicts, have escaped from jail via tunnel. Their culminating departure from the ground is treated, appropriately, like a birth. The two punch through the saturated ground into the rain — into a world of immediate discomfort. This brief scene contains no dialogue, only the intense durational screams of those birthed.
This scene, for one, introduces Raising Arizona’s characteristic idiosyncrasy — each of the film’s characters have noticeable traits that are inherently childish; Gale and Evelle are thus viewed as parentless children forever seeking entry back into the womb. In recognizing this metaphor the breadth of a film ostensibly about the dramatic sorrow associated with securing custody of a child is seen.
Judging solely from themes and their corresponding emotions, it seems curious that custody battles would be ground for a film charged with wit and known for its humor. This theme occurs occasionally (though infrequently) in film, and it has not been handled with such heart, genuine care and lack of melodrama as it is in the Coens’ sophomore effort.
H. I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage in his most distinguished role) is a curiosity. His actions and behavior suggest that he is an institutionalized delinquent, yet he speaks with an endearing drawl, injecting a wide vocabulary into his speech.
Through various trips to the police lineup H. I. meets and courts Edwina, the photographer. In a later meeting between the two H. I. is fingerprinted. It is an opportunity for the two to share a moment of brief intimacy. H. I., with ink on his fingers, places a ring on Ed’s.
The two marry, move to the outskirts of Tempe and consider having a child. Ed finds she is infertile (according to H.I.: “Biology conspired to keep us childless”). H.I.’s past as a convict prohibits the two from adopting. Ed abandons her job and hope.
There is a deeper emotion fertilizing this scene. Though its heart is obscured by the film’s goofy wit, H.I. and Ed’s sorrow is real and it is felt. Raising Arizona is by description a comedy, though its ultimate triumph lies in its realistic drama.
A local furniture salesman, Nathan Arizona, makes news with his recently born quintuplets. H.I. and Ed decide to steal one of the children. There is an inimitable logic to their action: they fulfill their dream to be parents and reduce the Arizonas’ task of caring for five children.
The first night the couple spends with their stolen child H.I. dreams of a wall of fire that produces the silhouette of a leather-clad, grease-ridden biker. He sucks down a cigar, screams through a desert road. He is distracted by a nearby lizard basking on a rock, whom he eliminates with a rifle (if this action doesn’t illustrate his menace and inhumanly quick reflexes, he later catches a fly with his fingertips).
There is shared detail between H.I. and the biker. Earlier, in the police lineup H.I. displays a Woody Woodpecker tattoo, later it is found the biker has an identical one. This detail associates the characters, and upon initial notice seems extraneous. One is a redeemed thief with a renewed care for life (essential to his being a successful father), the other, a nihilist (fans of the Coens’ The Big Lebowski will notice the distinction).
To further evidence the use of metaphoric birth in Raising Arizona the biker can be viewed as a rejected progeny. He has a tattoo that reads: “my mama didn’t love me”; this, perhaps, reasons his general disdain for existence. He has been robbed of love. In his aloneness he seeks to expound his pain on others.
Furthering this notion is the biker’s name, Leonard Smalls, revealed long after his visually kinetic introduction. This name is taken from Lenny Smalls of “Of Mice and Men”, and when the traits of the book’s character are lent to the film’s, he is viewed, appropriately, as one incapable touching something without damaging it.
There are other parallels. In the scene in which H.I. selects one of the quintuplets, a low-angle shot, from underneath the babies’ enlarged crib, captures one as he is drug out. This shot is mimicked exactly later in the film, as Lenny drags H.I. out from underneath a truck. In essence, both are being removed from their desired sources of protection or comfort. This congruence is interpretably realized by H.I. who returns the kidnapped child.
The film is bookended by a voice-over that traces, firstly, the genesis of the McDonnoughs’ relationship, and finally, a dream that prophesizes their future. The first precedes the opening credits in what is to mind the latest opening credit roll in film. In these scenes, particularly the last one, the film’s humor is supplanted by the drama at its heart. The finale, another of H.I.’s intense dreams, completes the circle. Gale and Evelle are seen re-entering prison through their own tunnel (figuratively re-entering the womb). Nathan Jr. (the kidnapee) is seen as a talented football player at Arizona State, inspired, perhaps, by a football given to him in secret by the McDonnoughs during a Christmas in his youth.
The film’s comedy, mostly slapstick, emerges from situations, and these situations in themselves are not humorous given their context — a chase scene in which a bag of Huggies is a weapon or an rabbit that is lured to an active grenade. Founding the base of Raising Arizona is its wit. Its comedy is so consistent and heightened that scenes and jokes often distract the ones that follow them.
For these reasons Raising Arizona is a favorite of many in the Coens’ catalogue. Upon its initial release it was criticized for having no restraint. Washington Post critic Rita Kempley, in citing its influences, notices references to “Monty Python, comic Sam Kennison, the Gerber Baby and the Road Warrior.” Her claim is humorous and correct in its sporadic inclusion of unrelated elements, and illustrates the very essence of the film.