Saturday, October 30, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona)

Despite its many flaws, Blood Simple (1984) earned The Coen Brothers the respect of many critics and gave them a nascent cult following.  The duo's follow-up, Raising Arizona (1987), provides the first indication that they did not intend to rest on their laurels.  Where Blood Simple was a fairly straightforward (if stylish) noir drama, Raising Arizona is a live-action cartoon that playfully views a typical domestic comedy through the prism of a wild action movie.

The Coen Brothers' first two features have so little in common that I am having a hard time spotting many recurring themes or stylistic trademarks at this point.  One of the criticisms of the duo that I'm sympathetic to is the idea that they tend to look down on their characters.  This is a perfectly valid complaint that applies to both Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, which are united by a worldview that could be summed as "people are stupid."  But Raising Arizona has a much more dynamic emotional range than Blood Simple, including a layer of sweetness that the earlier film's grim tone couldn't possibly support.  There are unmistakable elements of redneck minstrelry in Raising Arizona's trailer park fantasia, and The Coens are clearly uninterested in understanding the Southern culture that they offer up for mockery.  But the cynicism is tempered by the mostly affable performances of the cast, most of whom are allowed to display more personality (and deliver more colorful dialogue) than the cardboard cutouts in Blood Simple.

Nicolas Cage stars as a gentle convenience store robber (his guns are never loaded) whose frequent stints in prison introduce him to his future wife, a patrol officer played by Holly Hunter.  After the baby-crazy couple realize that they can't conceive, they hatch a plot to kidnap one of the quintuplets recently birthed to hardware tycoon Trey Wilson.  Hell's Angel Randall "Tex" Cobb offers to track down Wilson's missing baby, in a plot point that is not dissimilar to the business arrangement between M. Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedeya in Blood Simple (though the execution of this aspect of the plot is one of the few areas that makes Raising Arizona seem like a step back from the earlier film).

The observations that The Coens' story is built around - men value personal freedom, women are domestic, marriage and work are boring, in-laws are annoying, salesmen are hucksters - are stale sitcom cliches.  But even if the film's conception of Southern culture is a little too Joe Dirt, the elaborately detailed construction of the characters' milieu is something to behold.  Every frame is packed with oddball details, and The Coens display a remarkable dexterity with the camera.  The film reaches its high point with a masterfully silly chase sequence that begins with Cage stealing diapers at gunpoint and ends with a store clerk, several policemen, a random citizen, and a pack of dogs chasing the thief through what seems like an entire city block.  (This scene also features the return of the dog's-eye-view shot briefly introduced in Blood Simple).

Raising Arizona works as long as The Coens keep the pace antic and lively.  Unfortunately, the film doesn't consistently keep up the breakneck pace of its funny, economical pre-credits sequence, which gets most of the exposition out of the way through clever use of repetition and character quirk.  Whenever the film takes the focus off of Cage's wonderfully gonzo lead performance it seems to lose its way, especially during the interminable scenes of the Hell's Angel looking tough on his motorcycle.  But overall Raising Arizona is a fun, modest comedy that demonstrates that The Coens are versatile filmmakers with an increasing command of their craft.

UP NEXT  Miller's Crossing

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