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The Coen brothers are masters of dark comedy. With an almost paranoid attention to detail, they manage to find humor in even the most horrifying scenes and storylines. So, in honor of the 30th anniversary of their second feature film, Raising Arizona, we thought the time was right to take a close look at their first effort in the dark comedy genre, an area of film that would undoubtedly become their hallmark.

Raising Arizona has all the Coen essentials: a dark storyline about desperation for status; zany characters with sharp wit and idiosyncratic dialogue; and super stylized sets that magnify the absurdity of the world they’ve created. It also stars Nicholas Cage in his prime, and whether you’re a Cage fan or not, it’s undeniable how charismatic the man could be, especially in his younger days.

Without further ado, let’s explore Raising Arizona‘s contribution to the Coen brothers’ film canon.

Raising Arizona Is the Perfect Dark Comedy

Dark comedy is characterized by a few simple features: the main characters have goals or desires which, due to circumstances out of their control, become totally unattainable. They become mixed up and lost in their own futility. As they struggle against all odds and the story becomes more convoluted, the absurdity of their position becomes hilarious.

In Raising Arizona, the story goes like this: H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) is a recidivist thief who falls in love with his mugshot photographer, a police officer named Ed (Holly Hunter). When he finally decides to quit robbing convenience stores and getting arrested, they get married and begin a quiet little life in the suburbs of Tempe, Arizona. So what if the suburbs of Tempe are actually just five or so trailers scattered in the Arizona desert?

But when they decide to start a family in order to become “decent and respectable” people, they hit a road block. First they find out Ed is infertile, and then that H.I.’s checkered past prohibits them from adopting. H.I. sums up their hopelessness: “Ed lost all interest in both criminal justice and housekeeping,” while he caught himself, “driving past convenience stores that weren’t on the way home.”

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Together they decide to kidnap a baby from a local unpainted furniture and bathroom-fixture dealer, Nathan Arizona, whose wife recently had quintuplets. As H.I. explains: “we thought it was unfair that some should have so many while others should have so few.” How could anything possibly go wrong?

The whole film revolves around the idea of social mobility. But where many Hollywood movies put fame, fortune and power as the highest goals, the Coen brothers lower the bar a little. The McDunnoughs want to become middle class suburbanites. And although they seem to be content with their economic standing, they believe that in order to move up and become “decent and respectable” they need to have a family. In order to become a good White American Family they need to have a child.

However, they can’t have a child. So it’s either kidnapping or forgetting their dreams altogether and losing hope. By stealing a baby, they can at least pretend to be a family – and by pretending, to one day, maybe, become one. Unfortunately, those decent and respectable families that the McDunnoughs model themselves after, only exist in the movies. So the Coen brothers leave us with the sad reality that ultimately their dream isn’t to become a suburban middle class family, but to act like one.

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In Fargo, the Coen brothers look at a similar problem; but rather than trying to become a middle class family man, Jerry Lundegaard absolutely fails at it. He has a nice house, a decent job, a lovely wife and a son, but due to a series of bad decisions and bad deals, he is losing his middle class status. So in the face of massive debt and fraud charges, he opts to have his wife kidnapped and to take a large cut of the ransom that his father-in-law will pay.

The Coens repeatedly take aim at social status by exposing its fragility. They want to show us that our dreams and desires have been decided in advance; that we can achieve our dreams only if we play our roles well; and that if we play our roles badly, things will fall apart. Then it’ll be our fault, even if there were no good options to choose from. And if that’s not bad enough, there are no guarantees. We might do everything right and still end up with nothing.

Although Raising Arizona focuses on the lives of poor white Americans, the commentary can be extended to much more disadvantaged demographics. The story would undoubtedly play out differently, but this is why dark humor is often used as a form of social commentary: it takes the position of the vulnerable and the marginalized seriously and makes a joke of how hard it is to get by in the face of insurmountable social, economic and biological pressure.

Where Futility and Language Meet, You’ll Find the Coen Brothers

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One of the ways the Coen brothers emphasize the absurdity of their characters’ situation is through dialogue. In fact, their dialogue is so specific that when you watch one of their movies, you can tell straight away that they wrote it. It’s also one of the ways that they’re able to seamlessly turn every moment of futility and sadness into something hilarious.

As they did O Brother! Where Art Thou? and Fargo, Raising Arizona uses local accents pushed to the point of caricature, combined with overly complex and idiosyncratic phrasing. H.I. in particular, speaks in a kind of old fashioned literary style that, when combined with his folksy rural southwestern accent, makes a joke of both literary and folk vernacular. For example, in what should be a heartrending scene at the fertility clinic with Ed scream-crying beside a stoic H.I., H.I. paraphrases, “the doctor explained that her insides were a rocky place, where my seed could find no purchase.”

H.I.’s idiosyncratic speech plays on the “conflict” between high and low culture. And in the world of Raising Arizona, where the privileged make it impossible for the rest to achieve their goals (not so far from our own world), it’s ingenious to create a character whose speech seems to embody both sides. In dark comedy there are no good guys or bad guys. Even the marginalized are implicated in the systems that hold them back.

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This is pushed further with H.I.’s former prison buddies Gale and Evelle who, rather than speaking in a literary style, use the language of bureaucracy and the institution. When Ed finds out they had broken out of jail, Evelle corrects her: “We released ourselves on our own recognizance,” and Gale corrects him further, “What Evelle means to say is, we felt the institution no longer had anything to offer us.”

Then there’s the manipulation of platitudes. Like the sardonic use of literary language, the Coens have their characters use turns of phrase that would typically be associated with the boring authority figures, whose advice is patronizing, moralistic and totally meaningless. When H.I. is stressed out because he lost his job, Evelle responds to him by saying, “Come on H.I. You’re young and you’ve got your health, what do you want with a job?” And when their group-counsellor asks the inmates why they’ve chosen prison over starting a family, Gale responds, “But sometimes your career has got to come before family.”

By having these escaped convicts use the language of the institution to their own ends, the Coens express the idea that we are defined by the spaces we inhabit. They work on our minds and the ways we interact with others. They define the roles we’re going to play and for what reasons. In the end, we’re trapped in a world of clichés and implicated in the forces of patriarchy and status that end up holding us back.

How to Shrink the Human Being: Set Design

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What becomes clear is that although this comedy is full of cartoon-like characters and zany, over-the-top situations, the Coen brothers are giving us their take on reality. This is why the sets in Raising Arizona (as well as their later work) are so crucial to their dark humor. The most obvious example is the dynamic between the closed prison and the open desert.

At the beginning, H.I. spends most of his time in jail. When he finally decides it’s time to put his lawless days behind him, he shacks up with Ed in the Arizona desert. The juxtaposition is made especially obvious because of the camera work. In prison the camera films H.I. from above as he lays in his bunk, looks up at him from behind as he walks down the hall of towering cells, or shifts between him and his fellow inmates at counseling. The shots are close up and focused. Once he’s out in the desert, there are rocky, cactus ridden vistas, sunsets, and a ton of open space encircling the five trailers they call a suburb. In the desert there’s open space, but suddenly H.I. and Ed look very small. Out of prison, everything seems a little more hopeless and a lot more confusing.

In many ways, this same dynamic is used in Fargo, where the open farm fields and perpetual blizzards of North Dakota are a substitute for the desert. Much later, in No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers return to the desert, where they once again emphasize its inhuman vastness and the unforgiving silence that is trapped within it. In each case it has the same effect: shrink all the characters and their agency within a world that doesn’t care either way about them.

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Interestingly, there’s a character in Raising Arizona who personifies exactly the opposite as well. H.I. first sees him in a dream full of fire and death, as the camera pans across an open desert highway and he rides heroically into view on his Harley. He looks like a cross between an evil rockstar and an actor from the Road Warrior movies. And as he rides through the desert he blows up rabbits with grenades and shoots lizards with his sawed off shotgun. “The lone biker of the apocalypse” is the only “hero” in the movie and the only character for whom the desert seems too small. This is because he lives by no rules and has a special hatred for all that is vulnerable and gentle and weak. However, like the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, it turns out it’s all for show: his quick reflexes can’t save him when he suffers the same fate as the rabbits he took pleasure blowing up.

The landscapes and set design practically become characters in Coen brothers movies. Like their use of language, they are carefully chosen to emphasize specific aspects of their characters’ personalities, rather than being simple backdrops for the action. The characters seem able to exist only in the specific settings where they live. It is because of this that they work so well with the Coen brothers’ dark sense of humor: although the characters are commonly caricatures or even cartoon-like, the settings are real and known, giving their films a firm grounding in reality. This gives them the opportunity to connect the world of their characters to our own, even while distorting it. By doing so they’re able to comment on the hopelessness and futility of a world in which our greatest dream is to act like our favorite characters, even when most of us fail miserably or, at best, end up acting like our least favorite ones.

Is There a Lesson in Raising Arizona?

Definitely not a moral one! Consistent with other dark comedies, we’re given a sketch or outline of the reality we live in, rather than being told what to think about it. This arrives in the form of a zany, slapstick-filled film about a bunch of caricatures whose hilarious schemes always end badly. And while the storyline, characters and sets could only come from the quirky imaginations of the Coen brothers, the film remains critical and engaged with the world we live in – a world where the little guy struggles to change their own tough situation, let alone the world at large, and the big ones who don’t give a damn.

You can watch Raising Arizona on Netflix, or buy it here.

Find out everything you need to know about the Coen Brothers’ cinematic style in our Behind the Camera series.

  • Lead image: 20th Century Fox
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