Arizona is the kind of fun thriller they don’t really make any more. Not for a while, anyway. It’s glossy schlock at its best, and I mean that in the best possible way. It shouldn’t really be compared to the works of Quentin Tarantino. It falls more in line with the glut of crime thrillers that came in the wake of Pulp Fiction. It’s not first, or even second tier. It’s like a third their rip-off that lines up more with Mark Wahlberg’s The Big Hit or Katie Holmes’s Go in terms of tone, than it does 2 Days in the Valley or Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. Back in the late 90s, everyone wanted to be a Tarantino clone, and that quickly morphed into its own sub-genre. The idea was abandoned long ago, though it left some worthy cinematic endeavors in its path of deep destruction. Arizona is born out of that school, but it’s done in a classic candy flavored style that grabs you by the neck in a tight grip and refuses to let go until the very last second.
Directed by Jonathan Watson, who is making his feature film debut after serving as a second unit or assistant director on quite a few very popular movies such as 21 Jump Street, La La Land, This is the End and The Disaster Artist, just to name a few of his many credits, Arizona isn’t necessarily a comedy. It’s played as a straight thriller, and that’s what makes it so funny. The situation is dire, and continues to spin out of control in ways you won’t see coming. It’s brutal and bloody, with the jokes seeming to ooze out of its skin naturally, like a scab pulsating with puss that can’t quite be contained.
It’s 2009, and the plot thrust deals with the housing crisis. There are probably a thousand perfect metaphors and motifs that run through its brisk 85 minute run time. It could be filled with inside jokes and commentary, but like any good Asian horror flick, what’s going on just above the surface is so captivating, you don’t necessarily notice a lot of what’s underneath the water on that first initial viewing. It’s a smart movie wearing a slight mask of ignorance and befuddled butt fuckery, all brought on by its main antagonist Sonny, played to absolute perfection by Danny McBride.
McBride has always run the risk of being typecast. Many believe his persona outweighs any character he takes on, but it’s always a welcome one. He can’t quite escape his reputation, but that’s why we love him so much. And perhaps why he doesn’t get more roles like this. He plays it completely straight here as a man whose life is slipping through his fingers at an expedient rate. He’s at times terrifying, yet, no matter how he spins the situation, McBride can’t help but make you smile. It’s not his fault, the man is just naturally funny, even when delivering lines that would sliver your bones into a billion shards had it been delivered by someone else.
McBride’s Sonny is a big eyed Arizonian with bleached hair and a bad disposition. He’s in danger of losing his house. He’s already lost his family, and his brilliant idea for Miami Wice (ice made out of wine) has stalled. His wife has left him, and his child is no longer in his custody. He used to live robustly within this big gaudy facade, but that has cracked away. When he goes to confront the Realtor (played by a really scuzzy Seth Rogen in a glorified cameo) that sold him his house, which is about to be foreclosed upon, the situation spins unexpectedly and dangerously out of control.
McBride isn’t hunting for laughs here. He comes on strong, like a Michael Myers or a Jason Voorhees who occasionally lets an unexpected one-liner slip. It’s hard to tell if his dialogue was always in the script or ad-libbed. There’s a scary moment when he’s abducted a young girl. McBride has a fast food bag over the poor teen’s head. He asks her a question, she stays silent. Sonny breaks the tense moment by asking her if she’s found a french fry, and the delivery by McBride is just unexpectedly hilarious in that particular moment.
Rosemarie DeWitt is electrifying as a Realtor whose life is crashing around her in quiet ways. Cassie’s husband has left her for a young, more vivacious woman, her teenage daughter is tolerating her, and unbeknownst to us at the start, she is also about to lose her shitty house, which brings a strong connection between her and Sonny after Cassie gets caught up in the man’s desperate attempt to keep his head above water after he accidentally commits a very heinous deed that propels the story to places most viewers definitely won’t see coming.
Sonny basically kidnaps Cassie and takes her back to his seemingly nice McMansion inside a gated community. Most of his neighbors have already lost their homes, and this once beautiful destination is quickly becoming a ghost town. The nearest resident is four culdesacs away, so, as Sonny explains, scream away, cause no one is ever going to hear you. Sonny has made a terrible mistake and he wants to fix it. There is a dead body in the mix, and poor Sonny believes that if neither he nor Cassie say anything about it, ever, it will just go away. An idea that clearly plays into the housing crisis itself. Cassie plays along for a minute, and both McBride and DeWitt give performances that continue to propel the narrative to unexpected places with a fiery chemistry that is parts lumbering dumb oaf and sweet, cunning tweety bird.
It seems like a contract is laid out early on between the two. Both parties are going to go their separate ways. But then Sonny’s ex-wife Vicky, played with vivacious roars of ‘I don’t give a fuck’ by the always brilliant Kaitlin Olson, shows up. She drives a bright yellow Hummer with ‘Bad Bitch’ writer in pink across the windshield. Her license plate screams Vix Whip in the most obnoxious way. Her hair is frosted, and she is Miami via Arizona in the worst possible way. She bickers with and berates poor Sonny, and it’s easy to see why they’re no longer together. Her presence is unexpected and you almost can’t blame Sonny for using his golf club in ways that aren’t meant to be kind. It’s Vicky who really lets the situation become unhinged, and though she’s only in the movie for a moment, Olson easily steals the thunder out from underneath McBride and DeWitt for a few glorious minutes. But, with her luminescent blue eyes and her shit-stained tongue of deceit, you can tell she is not long for this world. She is another Jenga piece that gets pulled out at the wrong place, wrong time.
Poor Sonny just can’t seem to get things back on track. And Cassie tries to play empathetic while also pulling herself out of this horrible situation. It works for neither of them. In the process, we’re treated to a spiral of bad deeds. There’s a millennial security guard who doesn’t want to help Cassie after she escapes, simply because he’s no longer getting paid. David Alan Grier gets a big moment as a cop who arrives on the scene only to find that he’s pretty usless, and Luke Wilson steps into play Cassie’s ex-husband, who tries to rush to her rescue with horrible results.
The movie is a perpetual motion machine that doesn’t ever stop, like a great white shark hunting for its next bloody piece of meat. Cassie and her daughter are relentlessly chased through Sonny’s dying gated community, traversing sewers and dirt roads, with the climax coming inside an abandoned house now used as a grow room for marijuana. This becomes like the hedge maze in the Shining, with McBride doing his scary best to stalk mother and daughter. There is one very unexpected moment that arrives. I won’t tell you who it involves, because then you’ll be waiting for it. But the pay off is so big, so funny, and so ‘what the fuck, did that really just happen’ that it comes on like a punctured tire. It takes the air out of the day, and the real ending comes on as slightly anticlimactic. The grand finale is actually set up early on in the film, and it’s the perfect way to end everything. But after that big wham-pow scene, you kind of just have to shrug the rest of it off. As you’ll still be reeling and shaking your head. Again, it’s suspected that this all plays into the parameters of how the whole housing crisis played itself out. So, upon first viewing, that final moment kind of feels like a bike tire fart. Upon further inspection, it would appear to be a quite brilliant series of events in terms of playing it parallel with the reality of the situation at hand.
Arizona is the type of movie that needs to be seen multiple times to go through all the layers. It works like the Burbs in that way. You can tell, with each subsequent viewing, it has the potential to get better for the viewer who is paying attention. Danny McBride will never be able to completely shuck his Kenny Powers mask, part of that is just embedded within him. But that’s what makes him so great. He’s just inherently watchable. And he takes his best assets and puts them to work here, doing really scary, funny mesmerizing work. And Rosemarie DeWitt is the perfect foil. Early on she is told that she is looking good by her ex-husband, and in the subsequent scenes, you can subtly see that her self-confidence has risen in ways that perhaps save her from imminent death here. The movie ends with her being a badass, rocking just a bra and skirt as the gated community goes up in a giant fireball behind her.
Arizona may go down as one of the best films of the year. It will slowly be discovered as it plays out on VOD and in select theaters. It will find its bigger audience. It’s definitely worth watching a couple of times. Jonathan Watson has made a worthy first film, and if you love the crime thrillers that arrived in the late 90s and early 2000s, you need to see Arizona immediately.