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A Serious Investigation: The Coen Brothers’ ‘Raising Arizona’ (1987)

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Leading up to the release of Hail, Caesar!, Vague Visages explores the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

If 1984’s Blood Simple was the test run for the Coen brothers’ darker tendencies, their 1987 follow-up, Raising Arizona, is a distinct calling card for their more overtly comedic instincts; a frenetic farce that combines slapstick sensibilities and giddy playfulness with the English language. And yet, after revisiting Raising Arizona for (apparently) the fifth time in a decade, and the first time in five years, what struck me most is the fictional universe the Coens construct here; an amalgamation of disparate cultural touchstones and cinematic conceits that miraculously mesh together in a beautiful union.

Blood Simple is a feature relatively grounded within the real world, while the world of Raising Arizona is very much the Coen brothers world. Or, rather, one of numerous worlds within a Coen galaxy, if you will. The enjoyable but strange connective tissue between so many of their films, particularly their overt comedies, is that they nearly all feel of a piece with one another, yet there is also a sense that none of the film’s characters could ever coalesce. The players of Raising Arizona are theoretically of the same species as the ones found in Barton Fink or The Big Lebowski, but each wacky world feels like its own self-contained thing. Unlike supposed relatives or ancestors spread out across multiple Quentin Tarantino films, the conundrums and shenanigans never seem like they could seep into another story. Coen characters are almost trapped in a purgatorial state, destined to remain in the mayhem they have created for themselves. Maybe that’s partly why H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter) can’t seem to envision a life for themselves outside of the confines of Arizona. Well, maybe Utah.

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What’s particularly arresting about the particular universe of Raising Arizona is how it directly addresses the notion of being between worlds and states of being. Its main embodiment of this is the bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall Cobb), who blazes his way into the film after the two leads have kidnapped a newborn quintuplet, Nathan Junior. In stark contrast to the live-action Looney Tunes tone and look of the film up to that point, “lone biker of the apocalypse” Smalls looks like something straight out of Mad Max, laying destruction in his wake as he moves through the land with single-minded purpose. Where the film delves into symbolism regarding states of being is through an explicit visual reference (a shared Woody Woodpecker tattoo) that suggests Smalls, who originally appears in H.I.’s nightmare, is the embodiment of the lead’s criminal past coming back to haunt him; a phantom id come whose antagonistic presence offers a path of redemption.

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Smalls is the final test regarding all of H.I.’s talk of going straight; throughout the film, and outside of the inciting incident of kidnapping, he repeatedly flirts with a return to crime, most notably in the film’s spectacular Huggies heist. In the climax of Raising Arizona, Smalls is defeated through H.I. facing him head-on rather than fleeing, and the villain is wiped away in an explosion akin to the one in which he entered the film on. H.I. literally destroys his demons, and so it is that the righteous, more virtuous path he waxes lyrically about in the film’s final narration seems honest and true. He acknowledges the limited nature and small world of his hopes and dreams, but he finds comfort in his capacity to change, even if the world and colourful supporting characters around him can’t seem to do the same.

Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.

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