Raising Arizona Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 1 DVD release of Raising Arizona

No-one could accuse Joel and Ethan Coen of resting on their laurels. After making a memorable debut with the dark, tortuous thriller Blood Simple, they chose for a followup a story that couldn’t be more different: a wild and wacky comedy about baby-kidnapping and mad bikers that’s about the closest anyone’s come to a live-action Road Runner cartoon.

Kicking off with what must be the longest pre-credits sequence this side of Once Upon a Time in the West (clocking in at an impressive eleven minutes!), Raising Arizona follows the fortunes of H.I. (‘Hi’) McDonnough (Nicolas Cage), a former convict turned loving husband and would-be father – but after his policewoman wife Ed (Holly Hunter) turns out to be infertile (“her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase”), they decide to kidnap one of the quintuplets recently born to local furniture mogul Nathan Arizona on the grounds that “they’ve got more than they can handle”.

So far so good – but with every criminal act comes consequences, here twice over in the form of escaped convicts Gale and Evelle (John Goodman and William Forsythe) and the fearsome Lone Biker of the Apocalypse (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), who, when he’s not shooting lizards or blowing up rabbits (“he was especially hard on the little things; the helpless and the gentle”), has taken it upon himself to get Nathan Jr back to his rightful parents…

All this is performed with gusto by a superb cast – in addition to those already mentioned, there’s an unrecognisable Frances McDormand as a neighbour from hell (“Ray, you take that diaper off your head and put it back onto your sister!”) and a bevy of memorable character turns – and shot by future director Barry Sonnenfeld in the same kind of cartoony, heightened-reality style that he’d go on to develop in the likes of The Addams Family, Get Shorty and Men in Black (apparently Joel Coen’s most constantly-repeated question on the set was “Does it look wacky enough?”). And Carter Burwell’s banjo-and-yodelling score fits the material like a glove.

But the film’s real glory is the script – as with other Coen opuses (notably Miller’s Crossing and Fargo), their ear for the idiosyncrasies of regional American speech is well to the fore, and even more impressive is the complex, rounded characterisation granted everyone from leads down to one-line bit parts (“Son, you got a panty on your head”). This may well be because I’ve lived with it for over a decade and have seen it countless times, but despite strong claims by Fargo and The Big Lebowski, I still think Raising Arizona is my favourite Coen Brothers film by a whisker, even though the governor of Arizona was reportedly less keen on it.

In common with rather too many R1 Fox releases of the time this DVD was released, it’s in non-anamorphic NTSC, and is consequently more than a little on the soft side – and it’s also surprisingly dark: during the epic night-time chase scene it’s occasionally a little hard to see what’s going on! The print itself is in excellent condition, but it’s obvious that it hasn’t been exploited to anything like its full potential – the result is certainly watchable (the colours are especially punchy), but not much more. The sound is the original Dolby Surround, and is rather undemonstrative given the potential (not to mention the Coens’ usual meticulous approach to sound design) – again, it’s workmanlike, but will hardly be the first choice to show off your system. There are 21 chapter stops, each signalled via a still and a title.

In terms of extras, there’s not much to write home about, unless you’re in the habit of writing home about trailers. Raising Arizona itself has four: the original theatrical trailer and three TV spots, and there are two additional trailers for subsequent Coen opuses Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. And that’s yer lot.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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