Arizona in a Handbasket

Raising Arizona (1987)

illustration by Dani Manning

Come to the land of sunshine, to this land where life is young. 

So begins the “Arizona March Song,” the official anthem of the nation’s 48th state. Where the golden sun is flaming, continues Margaret Rowe Clifford’s 1915 composition, into warm, white shining day, and the sons of men are blazing their priceless right of way.

The title of Raising Arizona—the second feature film by Joel and Ethan Coen, the one that saw them “invade the American mainstream,” as David Edelstein wrote in 1987—contains multitudes. Yes, the story centers on the desire to raise a child born with the surname Arizona. But it also conjures another term: raising Hell. By the transitive property, we could infer something fairly dire about the state of Arizona.

We meet H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and Ed soon-to-be McDunnough (Holly Hunter) simultaneously the first time Ed takes H.I.’s mug shots on his way to prison. Over the course of the ensuing 11 minutes of screentime, we’ll watch H.I. become infatuated with Ed, go to prison, be paroled, rob a Short Stop convenience store, console Ed after her fiancé (or fy-ants) leaves her, go to prison, be paroled, rob a Short Stop convenience store, slip a promise ring onto Ed’s finger during his fingerprinting, go to prison, be paroled, propose to Ed, wed Ed, settle into a “starter home in suburban Tempe” (airstream trailer in the red clay desert), get a job at the sheet metal factory, decide to start a family with Ed, discover Ed’s infertility, be rejected by an adoption agency, and decide to kidnap one of five children recently born to local furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). At that point, the opening credits begin.

This is the first of the film’s two romances, as Jeffrey Melton suggests in his paper “Romancing the American Dream: The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona.” The opening hyperkinetic whirlwind, all scored to driving banjo plinks and plunks and accompanying whistles (with a touch of yodeling for good measure), comprises a storyline all its own, one that rises and crests before the title hits the screen. After that, the second romance begins: the one between the McDunnoughs and the American dream. They long to achieve nuclear bliss, and they can’t do it as a duo. Their pursuit of happiness is indistinguishable from their pursuit of the child that might set them on the road to some normalized American prosperity, and the film is the story of this couple’s “desperate efforts,” Melton writes, “to demonstrate their worthiness of that union.”

H.I.’s chosen method of demonstrating his worthiness is to go straight, a task he attempts repeatedly only to be sabotaged by his own worst instincts. Living on the razor’s edge of the straight and narrow, the domesticated and newly pseudo-paternal H.I. finds himself driving by convenience stores, entertaining fantasies of relapsing into his old bad habits. Soon enough, he can’t help but give in, sticking up one of those convenience stores during what’s meant to be a routine Huggies run.

Raising Arizona is anomalous among the Coens’ filmography in its treatment of criminality. In the moral universe of Raising Arizona, crime can perhaps be forsaken, and transgressions can certainly be forgiven. In their myriad crime stories, the Coens have tended to take a far more fatalistic perspective on the theme. From Blood Simple to Fargo to The Man Who Wasn’t There to No Country For Old Men and beyond, crime is most often punished in no uncertain terms.

And then there is the strange case of H.I. McDunnough.

It makes a difference, certainly, that H.I. never commits a robbery with live ammunition (he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt). H.I.’s crimes are ones not of malice but of desperation—for enough cash to get a leg up, certainly, but also for the frisson of life. And it’s in this magnetic pull of criminality that the Coens demonstrate their trademark fatalism: H.I. is a victim of his own worst instincts, and for most of the film, it would seem there’s little reason to believe he’ll be able to put his thieving ways behind him.

A self-perpetuating loop of self-destruction sounds like the stuff of tragedy, but it’s also a description of the mechanism behind a good number of comedies. More than the crime fiction that inspired their prior film—the auspicious debut feature Blood Simple—it was classic comedy that led the Coens to Raising Arizona, the slapstick traditions that Kurt Vonnegut once described as “grotesque, situational poetry” of the sort that’s “about what life feels like to me.”

Raising Arizona’s comic universe is a land of grotesques, from the pathologically bland prison board that repeatedly determines H.I.’s fate, to his leering employer and that boor’s squalling brood, to the bellowing Nathan Arizona and his prim bride. Perhaps more grotesque than any of them, though, are Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe)—conniving escaped convicts who slurp cornflakes while menacing Ed with their gazes and eventually conspire to re-kidnap little Nathan Jr., going on the lam with the baby before H.I. and Ed have a chance to continue living on the lam with him. These particular grotesques have a distinct twist of the Southern Gothic to them, in keeping with another of the Coens’ stated influences, Flannery O’Connor. It was in O’Connor, as Ethan Coen told Positif in 1987, that they found a “true knowledge of Southern psychology”—which, as O’Connor so famously said, will always mingle in some minds with the grotesque. In Raising Arizona, we see Flannery O’Connor filtered through a slapstick lens, Gale and Evelle being something like her Misfit as crossed with Laurel and Hardy.

“The fundamental joke” of classic slapstick heroes, Vonnegut wrote, “was that they did their best with every test.” These characters “never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies, and were screamingly adorable and funny on that account.”

That just about describes the character of H.I. McDunnough, as dogged (in more than one sense of the word—cf. the canine pursuit that accompanies his botched Huggies-run-cum-robbery) a protagonist as you’re likely to meet. And in this cyclically doomed pursuit of some type of American Dream, a fight sabotaged by a combination of systemic oppression and his own worst instincts, H.I. calls to mind another comic archetype.

As noted by Jeffrey Adams in The Cinema of the Coen Brothers: Hard-Boiled Entertainments, H.I. bears a strong resemblance to Wile E. Coyote. Both characters prowl the desert, enduring constant punishment—as H.I. receives from every sphere of life, most acutely from the “lone biker of the apocalypse,” Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb)—but bounces back each and every time with hardly a scratch.

Chuck Jones, originator of Wile E. Coyote, took his own inspiration for the character from Mark Twain’s description of a coyote in the book Roughing It; those lines might as well describe H.I, too. “He is always poor,” Twain wrote of the beast. “Even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.” But as he glides through life, “he “never pants or ceases to smile.” This creature “lives chiefly in the most desolate and forbidding desert…[he] gets an uncertain and precarious living, and earns it.”

Raising Arizona was judged by Roger Ebert, in a 1.5-star review, as not having earned esteem or praise. The uncanny nature of its reality kept Ebert unpleasantly off-balance—“The movie cannot decide,” he wrote, “if it exists in the real world of trailer parks and 7-Elevens and Pampers, or in a fantasy world of characters from another dimension. It cannot decide if it is about real people, or comic exaggerations.”

Ebert described the film effectively; what’s controversial is the suggestion that these qualities might be deficits. What matters in effective slapstick comedy is the belief that it does take place in just this sort of liminal reality, one that may be outrageous but that still obeys some of our own rules of physical and psychological realism. These were the principles that Chuck Jones lived and worked by. “All humor,” he said in 1998, “comes from human behavior and logic. If it’s not logical, it’s not gonna be funny, and if it doesn’t stem from human behavior, how the hell do you know it’s funny?” And what could be more human and logical than a romantic striving for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

If the opening sequence of Raising Arizona plays with fast-forwarded time, the ending does so even more dramatically. But rather than an antic result, the conclusion achieves a sort of transcendence that’s both a departure from what’s come before and entirely in keeping with the whimsical narrative we’ve observed. Lying in bed, debating—at the urging of that surprising voice of prudence, Nathan Arizona—whether he and Ed should cut their losses and go their separate ways, H.I. has a dream in which he floats through visions of the future: the child they’ve returned grows up better for the experience of having been kidnapped; the escaped Gale and Evelle return to prison of their own volition; and H.I. and Ed grow old together, looking upon a thriving gaggle of children and grandchildren.

It may be that these prophecies seem too good to come true; it may be, too, that the Coens leave the nature of H.I.’s vision ambiguous. It may be that we’re meant to be unsure whether this future could possibly come to pass. But what’s certain is this: H.I.’s dreams have come true once before. Granted, in that case the dream was a very bad one—it would seem the supernaturally vicious Leonard Smalls was conjured directly from H.I.’s feverish unconscious. But if he could do it once, what’s to say H.I.’s dreams won’t come true again?

O come and live beside us, goes the “Arizona March Song,” however far ye roam. Come and help us build up temples and name those temples home. 

In short: let’s raise some Arizona.