Joel and Ethan Coen’s second feature-film, Raising Arizona stands in stark contrast to their first, Blood Simple. It’s an extremely silly movie, constructed from bright colours, slapstick, overacting, babies and optimism. It lacks the strong defining images that structure Blood Simple, but is nevertheless a very visual narrative, in which striking facial expressions and extravagant body-language stand in for the stylised shot-making of other Coen Brothers films. They apparently set out to make a film as different as possible from their debut, and in that they certainly succeeded.
The implausible plot is matched by over-the-top performances from the principal players. I’m guessing that John Goodman arrived on set and said ‘I’m really good at shouting wordlessly for extended periods’, because how else would they know, and how else would anyone think they could ask an actor to do what Goodman does in this film? Nicholas Cage is all floppy-haired, floppy-limbed, stylish awkwardness, and Holly Hunter alternates between hard-faced intimidation and a talent for gurning that has remarkably little presence in the remainder of her oeuvre.
Dramatic comedy comes in many forms, and one of the keys to pulling it off (other than being funny, obvs) is consistency. The teller of the joke needs to have conviction, or none of the timing and irony will ever matter. So Raising Arizona is to be found somewhere less far-flung than Monty Python, but there is still literally no subtlety to its humour—it’s as daft as fuck, and it knows it. Every moment is mannered and stylised, with no intention or expectation that the audience will ever believe in the characters or the situations that they find themselves in. It maintains this tone at a very stable level, which seems to me to be quite a technical achievement, and while the pacing is varied, the majority of the narrative is delivered at breakneck speed.
All this silliness marks it as belonging to a particular sub-genre of crime-comedy, one that can be lucrative, but which doesn’t really sit easily with the remainder of the Coens’ output. Crime-comedies a-plenty populate their filmography, but they’re usually pretty dark, and pretty subtle: this is the only one that looks like Hollywood’s idea of a crime-comedy, and tellingly, it is the only feature that made an appreciable amount of money in the brothers’ first two decades of film-making. But it still, somehow, looks and feels like a Coen Brothers film.
This is a question of style. Not of ‘their style of film-making’ but of the part that style plays in their creative process. Like some Baroque composers whose scoring serves primarily as a platform for ornamentation, the Coens always invest heavily in the surface finish of their work. This may seem like a quintessentially 1980s approach, but really it’s a cinematic approach, and there is nothing inherently superficial about it. The way a line is delivered can be the vessel for more filmic content than the meaning of the words, or their narrative function, and whether the actors are directed to be mannered, as here, or absolutely true to a dialect, as in Fargo, this is the way that world-building happens in many films—think of that witty, glamorous fantasy milieu in which Golden Age Hollywood movies are set. The world built in Raising Arizona is not a complex or insightful one, but I found it extremely entertaining.
“Well, which is it, young feller? If’n I freeze, I can’t rightly drop. And if’n I drop, well, I’ll be in motion.”