Viking Night: Raising Arizona
By Bruce Hall
June 8, 2010
There are many reasons that certain films achieve what we call "cult" status, but one of them is that they tend to deliver their message in subversive or controversial ways that don't appeal to everyone. While it's true that most people do not like to work for their entertainment, is it possible that even the most unusual films can have something to offer everyone? When I was in college, a group of friends and I would meet regularly to ponder this very question. Beginning with Erik the Viking, we gathered once a week to watch and discuss a different cult classic, but we decided to keep the Viking theme. Now, I'll be working without a turkey leg or a goblet of mead, but with each installment of Viking Night I still seek to examine the same question: Can a film with such limited appeal still speak to us all?
Joel and Ethan Coen enjoy the sort of culturally relevant niche that very few writers, directors or producers are ever fortunate enough to claim. Part of the reason may be that there aren’t many people in the world who can do so many things at such a high level and get consistently good results. For those not in the know, the Coen brothers are creators of such classics as The Big Lebowski, whose fans are almost religiously devoted to one of the most memorable comedies of the 1990’s. Among the faithful, almost everything the Coens create is like getting an extra birthday. For everyone else, the appeal is probably a little hard to understand. I suppose it’s a bit like driving a Jeep; if you’ve never experienced it, you can’t understand.
If you want to understand, know that for the Coens it all started with the noir thriller Blood Simple, released way back in 1984. If you haven’t seen it, the best description I could give you is “Kind of like a David Lynch movie, except that it’s good.” But while Blood Simple may be what put the two brothers on the map, the film that set the tone for the Coens’ enduring popularity was their second project, Raising Arizona. If Blood Simple is the sort of Hail Mary you throw at the beginning of your career when you’re trying to get noticed, Raising Arizona is the sort of film you make when you feel your instincts have been proven and you’re comfortable making risk part of your regular game plan. It’s also the first of a comedy brand; unique in its ability to combine pleasant things with horrible things in a way that makes you laugh and cringe at the same time.
Lighter in tone than its predecessor, Raising Arizona is the story of H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage, at his quirky best), a soft-hearted, small-time hood with a grade school education and a fetish for convenience store holdups. “Hi,” as he’s called by his few friends, does his best to stay out of trouble but the problem is that he’s not really good at anything – especially staying out of trouble. Hi just can’t seem to catch a break, until he meets the woman of his dreams in a pretty lady cop called Edwina (the sublime Holly Hunter) – whom everyone calls "Ed." Ed has booked Hi into custody more than once, and the two kindred spirits share a spark during a fingerprint session and eventually marry.
Things are great for a while, as Hi puts his life of crime behind him and devotes himself to his marriage. It seems almost too simple at first – kiss your wife, go to work, come home, have dinner, kiss your wife, go to bed. But soon, the couple find themselves unable to conceive, and the tension gets to be more than either can handle. It isn’t long before Hi starts casing convenience stores again and Ed settles into a profound state of depression. Soon they’re both out of work, out of money and out of everything but time – to sit and think about how much they’d like to be parents.