Raising Arizona | Critical Review by Tom Milne

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Raising Arizona.
This section contains 1,171 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Tom Milne

Critical Review by Tom Milne

SOURCE: "Hard on Little Things," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 218-19.

In the review below, Milne provides a plot summary of Raising Arizona.

Joel Coen is an original, no doubt about that. A B-movie noir with the tang of nightmare terror, Blood Simple led one to suppose that his line of descent was by James M. Cain out of the horror comics. Raising Arizona offers no grounds for changing that view, except in suggesting that somewhere back along that heritage Antonin Artaud must have bred in the bloodlines of both the Theatre of Cruelty and the Theatre of the Absurd.

More comedy than thriller, Raising Arizona at first seems far removed from characteristic Cain territory, with its tale of a latter-day outlaw who decides to settle down and become an upstanding family man. It nevertheless echoes the device which Cain once described as the mainspring of his fiction: "I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination … I think my stories have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box."

The forbidden box opened by H.I. McDonnough (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona is no less than the American Dream. A marvelous pre-credits sequence, executed strip-cartoon style in a series of rapid-fire tableaux, establishes Hi, a would-be outlaw branded with a Woody Woodpecker tattoo, as a sad sack criminal who gets arrested every time he attempts to rob a convenience store, then paroled because he uses empty guns for fear of hurting anyone. "I tried to stand up and fly straight," he explains mournfully, "but it wasn't easy with that sonofabitch Reagan in the White House." Emerging a three-time loser, he takes with him a wife in the shape of a policewoman (Holly Hunter) wooed and won during the three-time process of being photographed and fingerprinted.

Marriage, a home and a job follow naturally, but alas no children, since the policewoman proves barren. So what more natural in a land of consumer plenty than to steal one? Especially when newspaper accounts of the birth of quints to unpainted furniture king Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) feature the father's wry disclaimer, "More than we can handle!" No sooner has Hi proudly introduced his hijacked son to his new home and the mod cons of bedroom, kitchen and TV ("Two hours a day maximum, so you don't ruin your appreciation for the finer things") than the heavens open up in a storm of retribution. Turned into a sea of mud, the open ground in front of the prison heaves, and two prehistoric Frankenstein monsters erupt, turning into redneck convict escapees, former jailmates of Hi's, who elect to use his home as a hideout.

Once more poor Hi finds himself an outlaw, no longer able to accept the slobbishly amoral camaraderie of the underworld, not yet ready for the sophistications of decent society. On a visit with his wife (who proves an eager source of tips on motherhood) and bevy of children (who rampage on an orgy of destruction), Hi's boss Glen (Sam McMurray), reacting angrily to a punch on the jaw when he randily suggests a bout of wife-swapping, determines to turn Hi in as a kidnapper. Only to be forestalled when the two convicts (John Goodman, William Forsythe), reacting angrily when Hi's wife kicks them out of the house, decide to kidnap the baby themselves with a view to ransom. A Laurel and Hardy duo, surprisingly delicate in their social graces despite brutish manners, the pair haven't quite the heart to go through with it. Instead, discovering all sorts of frustrated paternal and maternal yearnings, they agonize over the advisability of leaving Nathan Junior in the getaway car while they raise finance by robbing a bank: "Suppose we go in there and get ourselves killed, it could be hours before he gets discovered."

Meanwhile, the forbidden box opened by Hi is still working its magic, and retribution is on the road in the fear-some person of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, a bearded aboriginal armed to the teeth and with features grimed by the fires of hell. First seen as a streak of fire burning up the highway as he shoots up wayside animals for the fun of it, the Lone Biker has accredited independent existence as Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), a bounty-hunter who switches from escaped convicts to kidnaped baby; but an incredible subjective shot preceding the bike as it races at breakneck speed to a house, up a ladder and through the open window just as Hi wakes in the grip of a nightmare, establishes him as a force released by Hi's dream. Only when Hi defeats the Biker in desperate single combat, and subsequently returns the baby to its bereft parents, do the furies subside.

Raising Arizona is studded with set pieces that are wonderfully funny in their own right, like Hi's first attempt to steal the baby, only to have its siblings set up a sympathetic squall, which ends as a free-for-all of scuttling babies as, each one parked at random as another requires comfort, all five race around like demented cockroaches; or his equally frustrating attempt to steal a pack of nappies, which escalates into a balletic dance for fugitive, pursuing police, rabid dogs and vigilante gunman ("Son, you got a panty on your head," an elderly motorist interestedly remarks as the stocking-masked Hi tries to cadge an escape ride). But the reason that this reductio ad absurdum of Reagan's America works so beautifully is that while its characters do not bleed—the violence, with the biker finally blown into fragments, is pure Tom and Jerry—they have a surprisingly touching vulnerability.

The Lone Biker, so Hi's off-screen voice comments as a grenade casually demolishes a rabbit, is "especially hard on little things"; and there is a very real sense in which the characters are all children, childlike in their humors, whether these make them innocently demanding (Hi and the policewoman), irresponsible (the two convicts), naughtily spoilt (Glen and his wife), comfortably blasé (Nathan Arizona and his wife), or viciously destructive (the Lone Biker, whose secret Woody Woodpecker brand makes him Hi's long-lost brother). Mom and apple pie still rule the American dream, as one of the convicts recalls when he ticks Hi's wife off for not breast-feeding her baby ("He'll hate you for it later, that's why we wound up in prison"), and as the Lone Biker confirms through the tattoo on his arm ("Mama didn't love me"). Is the dream, on the other hand, worth standing up and flying straight for? The sting in the movie's tail is that when Hi has finally sorted himself out and joined society, his reward is a dream of future blessings in which he and his wife, now senior citizens, are surrounded by a mysterious family of children and grandchildren … the first generation of whom bear a suspiciously marked resemblance to wife-swapper Glen and his wife.

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This section contains 1,171 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Tom Milne
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Tom Milne from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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