Coen Bros: Raising Arizona

THE LITTLE GUY: Like most Coen Bros’ movies, Raising Arizona is about a man trying, and failing, to raise his station in life. Like the protagonist of many noirs, Hi has a wife who wants something and doesn’t care what Hi has to do to get it. In Jules Dassin’s Brute Force, Whit Bissel’s wife demands a fur, forcing him to resort to embezzlement to procure it. Ed (that is, Hi’s wife) doesn’t want a fur or a ring or anything material — she wants a baby. With the baby, she will have family, and with family, she reasons, she will have “decency,” respectability.  (And, as we will see, she expects nothing less than divine salvation.) 

Hi loves Ed, but he’s less comfortable about the idea of a baby and unsure about the notion of decency. But he goes through with the theft of the baby for Ed’s sake.

In many ways, the plot of Raising Arizona illustrates Hi’s maturity from innocent child to responsible adult, from selfish individual to committed partner. (In this way it resembles the plots of many romantic comedies.) Hi spends Act I setting about acting responsibly, Act II finding himself tempted away from it, and Act III making his mind up to pursue responsibility or die trying.

Hi cannot stop himself from robbing convenience stores, in spite of being spectacularly ill-suited to the task. He blames his recidivism on Ronald Reagan, but it’s really just a symptom of his immaturity — he wants to get caught because he’s not ready to face the world and its responsibilities yet. He gets himself arrested by the police because he’s already arrested emotionally.

Prison, in this movie, is a place where men go to sort out issues of emotional development — in a way, it’s a womb for babies who aren’t yet ready to face the world. Some men in prison pine for their lost childhoods, some display stunted emotional lives, others insist that criminal enterprises are their “work,” — that is, that thing that men always say they have to do before they spend time with their families.

In Reagan’s America, the rich (Nathan Arizona) get richer (have more babies) while the poor (Hi and Ed)get poorer. (Hell, the rich even get longer names.) There seem to be two kinds of people in this world — powerful, white, (usually) bespectacled old people who sit behind desks, and the weak, poor people who supplicate before them. Hi and Ed must sit before a dozen different old white men behind desks in this movie, old white men who decide whether you go free or remain in prison, get married or have a child. This societal beat-down is so harsh that, by the end of the movie, Ed, who wanted this baby badly enough to steal it, becomes convinced that she is, in fact, unworthy of having a child at all.

Hi also wants to know if it’s possible to change his nature. The kidnapped baby is a kind of prayer for the ability to evolve. Is it possible to be good, Hi worries, or is he doomed to always be bad and to suffer the privations of the spiritually poor? The news for Hi ultimately seems to be that it’s possible to change, even if only in one’s dreams, but later on in the Coen canon Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing casually blames his inability to “be good” on his immutable nature.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: As in the Texas of Blood Simple, in the Arizona of Raising Arizona you’re on your own. The police are plentiful, but they are buffoons. “If you want to find an outlaw, call an outlaw,” advises the Lone Biker. “If you want to find a Dunkin’ Donuts, call a cop.”

MAGIC: Raising Arizona represents the first real flowering of the Coens’ version of Magic Realism. Hi dreams of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, and lo he appears. “I did not know if he was dream or vision,” says Hi, leaving out the possibility that he is, in fact, real.

It seems that the Biker starts in Hi’s imagination, but then takes on his own magic reality, complete with backstory. The Biker tells Nathan Arizona that he himself was a black-market baby (and he has the “Momma Never Loved Me” tattoo and bronzed baby shoes to prove it — the most pronounced case of arrested development in the movie), which suggests that he is, in fact, real, but then Hi discovers that he and the Biker share the same “roadrunner” tattoo, which suggests again that the Biker is a dream of Hi’s come to life.

Gale and Evelle, the two baby-faced convicts we see be literally born out of the mud outside the prison (one of them should have been named “Macduff,” from his mother’s womb untimely ripped) seem to be real enough people, but really they function as Hi’s subconscious come home to roost. No sooner has Hi committed to the responsibilities of parenthood do these two bozos show up to tempt Hi away from his family.

If Gale and Evelle are products of Hi’s subconscious past, Glen and Dot, the “decent” family Ed invites over for a picnic seem to be products of his subconscious future. This nightmare family of screeching, braying morons who spout racist humor, throw things at each other and swap spouses are what Hi worries he will one day become, and push his further away from attaining his goal.

The idea that Hi can make dreams come to life is terrifying, but it also, of course, brings us the most satisfying ending of all Coen movies — Hi’s dream at the end of the movie never fails to reduce this viewer to pools of salty tears, partly because I wish his dream to come true and partly because I’ve seen that Hi’s dreams do, in fact, have a tendency to come true.

IS THERE A GOD? In a way, the baby of Raising Arizona is a deity. He is seen as perfect and beautiful by absolutely everyone who beholds him and is pursued as a plug to fill a profound spiritual void in many of the characters’ lives. More significantly, he is often a reflection of whatever the viewer cares to see there. Nathan Arizona names him Nathan Junior, Hi and Ed tell people that they’re calling him both Hi Jr. and Ed Jr., Dot suggests several biblical names (and “Tab”) before settling on Glen, Jr., Gale and Evelle call him Gale Jr. Only the Lone Biker refrains from giving the baby a name — perhaps, as a personification of evil, he figures giving the deity a name isn’t in his best interests.

Raising Arizona ties childbirth to salvation with Hi and Ed’s character arcs as well. By the end of Act III, Ed becomes convinced that she is unworthy not just of motherhood but of salvation.

MUSIC: Bluegrass predominates. Banjo breakdowns accompany the crime scenes, recalling Bonnie and Clyde (another cockeyed family on the run from the law). But when Hi comes in from a night’s adventure, he finds Gale and Evelle up late watching opera (!) on TV (!!). The battle between bluegrass (lowbrow) and classical (highbrow) is combined in another theme, where Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” is played on banjos.

THE MELTING POT: Hi and Ed are white, as are Gale and Evelle, as well as Dot and Glen. White trash, but still white. Smalls is harder to place, being a symbol of evil and all, but seems white enough. Nathan Arizona, it is implied, is a self-hating Jew, or at least a self-hating German — “Would you buy furniture from a store called Unpainted Huffheinz?” he barks to an FBI officer. Is it symbolic that the Holy Baby of Raising Arizona is the son of the only Jew in sight?

FAVORITE MOMENTS: Hi awakens from a nightmare to find that his newly-stolen baby has also just awoken from a nightmare. Ed ignores Hi’s distress but sings the baby back to sleep — with what the characters of O Brother Where Art Thou would call an “old timey” murder ballad.

THE COENS SEE THE FUTURE: Gale and Evelle get their insider information about potential bank scores from one Laurence Spivey, a Nixon-era political appointee who is in prison for “soliciting a state trooper.”

A deadly-serious echo of The Lone Biker is currently on display with Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. In case you didn’t think the Coens were aware of the parallels, they include a scene of Chigurh stopping on a Texas road to take a shot at an innocent small animal.

Like Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother Where Art Thou, Gale and Neville’s first priority after busting out of prison is to see to their hair treatment. And like Ulysses, their empty pomade jar is a vital clue to the man tracking them.

Like Ulysses again, Hi awakes from a dream murmuring something. Ulysses murmurs “My hair!” while Hi murmurs “Merry Christmas.” I’m not sure what this means.

Evelle, Ulysses and Chigurh all stop in roadside convenience stores to have odd conversations with unhelpful old men.

Ed shares a name with Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There. I see nothing to connect the two characters, except that the Coens prefer short names for their main characters, to save on typing time.

Nathan Arizona yells at an employee named Miles over the telephone. It is improbable, but not impossible, that this is the same Miles who goes on to become a wildly successful divorce attorney in Intolerable Cruelty.

I read an essay recently that suggested that the Lone Biker symbolizes the nuclear anxiety of the 1980s. I find this a stretch, but there is a disturbing, inexplicable, undeniable reference to Dr. Strangelove in the movie: when Gale and Neville stop to pomade their hair, the graffiti on the men’s room door reads “O.P.E., P.O.E.”, a reference to the “callback code” in the Kubrick movie.

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13 Responses to “Coen Bros: Raising Arizona”
  1. Anonymous says:

    I have a question: Do you think this strike is giving the new shows longer lives? That is to say that usually a show gets 2-5 eps before it gets canned (unless it doesn’t but that’s rare). It seems like more of these new shows are getting a longer run. Could that be because they’ve usually ordered a number like 8-13 (the “unaired” episodes that would be used to sell the DVD, etc.) and now they are just airing them because they might not have newer content to fill it due to the strike?

  2. Anonymous says:


    Great piece.

    There’s also an Eddie in Miller’s Crossing.

    I read once that the proliferation of the name ‘Ed’ in the bros’ films is because their father is named Edward.

    Apparantly they also made a short Lassie ripoff as lads called ‘Ed… a Dog.’

  3. teamwak says:

    Another good one, thanks.

    I havent re-watched many of the Coens; except Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, and Hudsucker 🙂

    There layers of details that is mentioned are so often missed with only one viewing. Yet there are so many new movies being made. Its a tough one sometimes.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    Is it symbolic that the Holy Baby of Raising Arizona is the son of the only Jew in sight?

    The son of a Jew whose business is wood products, no less.

  5. craigjclark says:

    I can’t believe I missed this entry. Raising Arizona is the only early Coen Brothers movie I don’t own on DVD because I’ve always held out hope that it would get the special edition treatment at some point. At the very least I’d like an edition with more than just a trailer on it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    At one point, doesn’t Hi sport a “Hudsucker Industries” apron as well?

    And if I’m not mistaken, the roadrunner-head tattoo that both Hi and the biker sport can be seen as graffiti on the wall of an alley in Coen pal (and Hudsucker Proxy co-writer) Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, when Mary Jane nearly gets mugged in the rain while wearing a wildly inappropriate but truly excellent dress.

    — Nathan

    • Todd says:

      “Hudsucker,” and variations thereof, turn up often in the Coens work — it just seems to be a name they like. How a studio allowed them to put it in the title of one of their movies is beyond me.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Nice quote

    Bullwinkle: You just leave that to my pal. He’s the brains of the outfit.
    General: What does that make YOU?
    Bullwinkle: What else? An executive.
    — Jay Ward


  8. Anonymous says:


    I’m new here, just wanted to say hello and introduce myself.