There are films where you know from the get-go that they are going to shock you and then there are films that come out of nowhere. Arizona, the latest from RLJE Films, unequivocally falls into the category of the later. Built upon a simple, darkly comedic premise, Arizona presents a series of escalating events which disturb, jolt, and otherwise pummel the audience right along with the leads. With a hilariously dark script from Brooklyn Nine-Nine writer Luke Del Tredici, captivating direction from Jonathan Watson (HBO’s Vice Principals), and an all-star cast featuring Danny McBride (Vice Principals), Rosemarie DeWitt (La La Land), Luke Wilson (Old School), David Alan Grier (The Carmichael Show), and Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), there’s no shortage of talent coursing through the whole of Arizona. Talent alone, however, doesn’t make for an engaging cinematic experience, but talent combined with a genre-mixing script – that’ll drop your jaw to the floor.
Divorced, single-mom Cassie (DeWitt) lives with her daughter Morgan (Lolli Sorenson) in Harding, Arizona, a small, single sheriff town mostly devoid of residents due to the 2009 housing crisis turning people’s mortgages upside down. Desperate to make ends meet, Cassie turns to realty, despite low interest from buyers and a boss who makes her job miserable. That is until one morning when she witnesses a disgruntled homeowner, Sonny (McBride), accidentally killing her boss during a disagreement, forcing Sonny to take her hostage until he can figure out what to do next. With Sonny making one horrendously bad decision after another, Cassie must use every ounce of her wit and strength if she’s going to get out alive.Planting a film in the middle of the housing crisis in Arizona, especially as the playground for a dark comedy, is absolutely brilliant because it offers deep psychological fodder for the characters. The people in this environment are already teed-up from the economic pressure, so by adding in the natural arid climate of Arizona and drizzling in hundreds of homes with zero occupants, you get a mixture waiting to erupt. Cleverly, Tredici’s script takes full advantage of each elemental morsel, making the individual elements prominent at the start before slowly moving them up to the foreground and back throughout the film. Doing so enables the audience to focus on the performances right up until a triggering moment, when all the pressures of the situation come rocketing back to the forefront. Maintaining the push-pull of the script is a dizzying task, especially the further into Arizona the audience goes. However, Tredici’s script never loses its balance, never tipping too hard into horror or physical comedy. This not only keeps the tone consistent throughout Arizona, but it allows the audience to settle into the groove of the film comfortably. That is, until something seemingly occurs from left-field that the audience doesn’t realize has been set up all along due to the environment these characters are playing in. As if Arizona isn’t high-strung enough, the music by Joseph Stephens (Vice Principals) and cinematography by Drew Daniels (It Comes At Night) certainly won’t enhance your calm. With a pulse-pounding, unrelenting synth beat, Stephens infuses Arizona with the aura of an eighties slasher film. As Sonny digs himself deeper into trouble, as Cassie becomes more desperate to free herself from the situation, the music matches their intensity. The music is particularly note-worthy during one sequence when Cassie – as all captives do in this kind of “anything-goes” dark comedy – gets loose from Sonny’s clutches, only to find herself stuck in the middle of an upper-middleclass wasteland. She’s tired, stressed, and her environment is both familiar – it’s one of the estate properties she shows – while also entirely foreign in its current visual landscape. As her frustration rises, the music accelerates, keeping the audience just as stressed as Cassie as she may be out, but she’s not free. Working in tandem with the music to accentuate the performances is some incredibly alluring cinematography which captures the civility present in the beginning of the film in equal measure to the insanity of the denouement. Anyone who saw 2017’s It Comes At Night is deftly aware of Daniels’s ability to craft hauntingly beautiful scenes and his work in Arizona is no different. As things spiral beyond reason, visual dread fills every scene, yet feels somehow elegant even as it frequently leans into the eighties-slasher vibe to compliment the score. Pulling it all together is a superb cast that does a wondrous amount of work, frequently with very little. Exposition for the sake of world-building is infrequent and, even at its most frustrating, serves an underlying purpose to establish necessary motivation. The trouble for most audiences, however, will come from the fact that much of that character-necessary exposition is for the benefit of the audience, not the story. That said, DeWitt as Cassie is a strong lead, able to match McBride barb-for-barb, energy-for-energy, and she projects a character befitting the “final girl” title. As for McBride, no one will be shocked by anything they see from the insanely versatile actor. While not always to everyone’s taste, McBride imbues Sonny as an initially sympathetic character whose sense of fair play and excitable nature make his turn into an unrelenting force both sad and incredible to behold. The remaining cast of Wilson, Grier, Olson, and the rest truly do nothing more than provide natural obstacles for Cassie and Sonny to overcome in one way or another and their contributions to Arizona, however small, are vital to the audience’s enjoyment.
A film like Arizona isn’t going to work for everyone if they can’t buy-in to the premise. Almost every character we’re introduced to is somewhat of a terrible person. It doesn’t matter if circumstances forced their hand or not. Each one makes choices and those choices carry surprising weight to them. The other aspect that may trouble folks is the sheer carnage on display due to the high kill count. This fact will only cheer on the most avid horror fans, but those seeking a simple comedy should look elsewhere for within Arizona, choices have consequences. The more pure you are, the less likely you are to be hurt. So stay true, keep your head on straight, and, for goodness sake, don’t tell people you don’t have Italian ceramic tile if you do. It won’t end well for anyone.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.