Somewhere on an axis between dark horror and hilarious absurdity lies every Coen Brothers movie, rarely visiting the outermost margins, but living somewhere in the middle, somehow drawing upon either extreme to inform the other. That’s what always brings me back to their particular brand of storytelling; that somehow in their universe, the grotesque and the humorous are never far apart.
That said, my initial exposure to the Coens was through one of their more farcical efforts, and I think that every one of their movies I have seen since has been informed by that first impression. Somewhere in the back of my mind, whenever I’m in the opening credits of a Coen Brothers movie, I’m expecting—and hoping—for some kind of return to the madcap weirdness of Raising Arizona.
The story goes like this: Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough is a career convenience store robber who goes to jail so often that he gets to know Edwina (“Ed”), the police officer who takes his mugshots. Eventually, their insanely frequent meetings spark a romance, and they marry, only to discover that though they want kids, they cannot conceive. When news that Nathan Arizona, a rich furniture tycoon, has had a surprise set of quintuplets, Hi decides to steal one of the babies (he settles on Nathan, Jr.) under the premise that the kid’s parents will be so overwhelmed by their new parental chores that they’ll actually be grateful for somebody to lighten their load. Everything is hunky dory until everybody takes notice of Hi and Ed’s new kid. Hi’s boss and his wife immediately become overly nosy neighbors whose interest range from planning baby Nathan’s infant shots to wife-swapping. Meanwhile, the Snoats brothers—Gale and Evelle—break out of prison and decide to shack up with their old cellmate Hi for a while, not realizing Hi has since settled down and attempted to leave his lawless ways behind him. And Mr. Arizona himself is not taking the theft of his child lightly, and has put out a reward for the baby’s safe return that is so big it’s brought out a Mad Max-style bounty hunter to bag the quarry himself.
Things begin to get bonkers as Hi botches a robbery of his own to get diapers, Gale and Evelle steal Nathan Jr. and bring him along on the world’s most inept bank robbery, and the bounty hunter decides that he’s going to take the baby for himself to sell on the black market. It’s all a little much for poor Hi and Ed to absorb, and before long, the very fabric of their marriage begins to fray. All they wanted was to start a family of their own. Is that really so much to ask? Apparently, it is when you kidnap another person’s baby to do it.
The comedic high point of this movie is Hi’s diaper run, in which he starts off by stealing a pack of Huggies from a convenience store, but old habits take over and he cleans out the register, too. This leads to one of the best chase scenes in movie history as Hi is pursued by an assortment of trigger-happy store clerks, even more trigger-happy policemen, a pack of escaped dogs, and screaming civilians caught up in the way. The whole thing is set to a yodeling soundtrack that captures the tone not just of Hi’s strange evening, but of his ridiculous life of bad decisions. And when the chase is all over, what does Hi get? A swift punch across the jaw from Ed, who is furious that he’s returned to his felonious ways. Nobody ever said parenting was easy.
The moment of truth to this crazy adventure is when Hi and Ed realize that for all of the trouble they have put Nathan, Jr. through in defending him from those who also want to steal him, the boy belongs with his real parents. In one of the few things that they actually do as a team, Hi and Ed sneak back into the Arizona house and return the boy to his crib with his four remaining siblings. It’s a tender moment as they bid the child farewell, knowing that even though they have no right to him, they do care for the boy. As they do this, they are discovered by Mr. Arizona, who can tell just by looking at Hi and Ed why they took the child in the first place. Arizona might be rich and powerful, but he’s been married too, and he understands how tough that can be. He doesn’t take revenge on Hi or Ed, nor does he pity them. He just advises that they sleep on their next decision, and maybe, hopefully, they’ll find a path forward that starts with them staying together. That’s the most important thing: sticking by one another through thick and thin. Arizona seems to understand even better than Hi and Ed do that if they got through this crazy adventure they inflicted upon themselves, they really can get through just about anything.
That night, Hi and Ed go to bed together, and we see Hi dream, which serves as a kind of epilogue for the story and a prophecy for what will follow. We see justice finally delivered to those who deserve it most, and we see the fruits of family come to those who are willing to patient work through the obstacles rather than try to make a shortcut. What we’re seeing is a vision of the kind of life Hi wants for himself and Ed, and we imagine that when he wakes up, perhaps now, he’s finally ready to take a real crack at being the kind of husband—and eventually, father—Ed always knew he could be.