Why can’t the Coen Brothers just break down and direct an action movie?
After all, that is what they’ve done for about half the time in each movie, for their entire career thus far. Their early feature Raising Arizona (1987) probably epitomizes the their tendency to nearly come out of the closet and present their movie as a total stylized, nihilistic piece of trash for the masses rather than an independent art film (a label meaninglessly applied to their films). True, Raising Arizona, like their later movies, is more film savvy than the average action movie and wears its influences like stolen police badges; all the dizzying tracking shots, the sudden, ominous music, the fast dollying amount to giddy flaunting, rather than techniques that advance the story. But the story of Raising Arizona remains a template for style and cinematic nihilism, no matter how much trivia is supporting it.
The story itself involves a convict, H.I (a young—though younger than he actually looks—Nicholas Cage) who is released from prison having fallen for one of the security officers who worked there, a no-nonsense if still very sensitive woman named Ed (Holly Hunter). H.I and Ed try to have a baby, but in vain; Ed turns out to be infertile. So they are left with no choice but to kidnap one of the five babies of a wealthy banker (Trey Wilson), who they simply call Junior, until they think of something, as Ed puts it. They settle down in a ramshackle house in Arizona in a sincere attempt to raise the child, but two escaped convicts (John Goodman and Bill Forsythe), who knew H.I from prison days soon turn up in their lives once more, with plans to rob stores, loaf around H.I and Ed’s house and eventually for a grand crime scheme across the southwest—which proves tempting for H.I.
If the plot sounds twisty and turn, it is, but it is also incredibly easy to follow. The Coens would not have wanted it any other way. Such a storyline is perfect for an action movie and when the film does let loose and lets guns blaze and cars smash in to people and explosions happen, the Coens prove that their greatest strength is creating exhilarating trash sequences. The most fun trash sequence may be when Cage, towards the end of a fight with Goodman, starts spinning John Goodman around by his nose while Goodman exerts one unending moan of the sort actors exert when they are getting beaten up in action movies. Or it could be the robbery of a grocery store, in which everybody appears to have a gun. Or it could be a shorter sequence near the beginning when Goodman and Wilson are dragging themselves out of the mud—don’t ask how they escaped or why they have been swimming through mud—with Goodman’s fat, mud soaked body emerging first and Wilson being pulled out by his legs by Goodman immediately after. These scenes should be taken out of context; the context of the rest of the movie is so absurd, so outlandish, and so flimsy, that the Coens probably didn’t even know why they were bothering with it. A sequence at the end involving a bounty hunter obsessed with finding and killing H.I and Ed feels too outrageous even for this film; but it also confirms the Coens yearnings to make a pure action film.
But the remainder of the film finds the Coens resorting to elements one is meant to find in a respectable art film. There is much supposed satire of the lifestyles folks who live in the western parts of the country. There are large doses of friction injected in to the relationship of H.I and Ed that is supposed to be palpable. At times, largely due to Cage’s voice-over that runs through the film, we are supposed to both empathize with his conflicted character and laugh at how silly he is (a dangerous audience manipulation that fails to succeed). And anyway, the Coens want us to think, who else would think of making a movie about how men and women work on their relationships that also contain a pro-boxer in a key role (Randall Tex Cobb as the bounty hunter)? The Coens want their audiences to share their impulses, not see a movie and think about it afterwards. They want to make us dizzy by throwing the entire history of movie sound bytes and storytelling conventions at us. The only scenes in which we become dizzy through exciting, organic imagery and direct motion is in the action scenes.
Every movie is essentially an action film. Movies are not particularly concerned with interior monologues and more concerned with a person’s artifice and physical actions; movies are impatient and tend to jump from one event to the next without much nuance; movies move and hurry our eyes along with them. Tired phrases such as ‘edge of your seat’ were not created for nothing. The best the Coen Brothers could do is become masters of this aspect of cinema. But until recently, they have always been proud proponents of what was once considered a new, snazzy form of postmodernism, glib but irresistible, with so much of film history being added to the mix that there are consequently no serious influences. This is the same kind of cinema from the late eighties and early 90’s that was practiced by Quentin Tarantino, Lars Von Trier in his early movies, and later, Guy Maddin, among others. Now it feels as if this type of movie itself has come to pass, and this postmodern-glib-trash movement itself has become a part of film history, if a somewhat hollow one. There are a few individual films that one can trace as influences to the Coen’s movies, but even they are relatively recent; they must have watched Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) a few times, and their friend Sam Raimi proved extremely influential on their visual quirks and camp-ironic attitude, all easily reflected in Raising Arizona (Joel Coen was an assistant director on the first Evil Dead movie). It is easy to see how this type of movie could look original twenty years ago. Yet nowadays, the Coens have tried to cut the crap completely and make a more serious type of art film, No Country for Old Men (2007). Even in that movie, though, the most enjoyable, cinematic sequence is a tense nighttime shootout between Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin around the premises of a quiet hotel. The impulse to make a pure trash action film is still there. So why can’t the brothers just surrender to it?