The indie genre scene often truly feels like the last sacred realm of exciting filmmaking. While that certainly isn’t meant to cast aspersions upon non-genre films or festival circuits and their roles, via dedicated journalists, in establishing hype for particularly intriguing projects outside of the genre sphere and granting exposure to all sorts of compelling voices familiar and new, there is something to be said for the sheer, audacious creativity celebrated by certain genre films and the festivals, particularly those like Sitges, Fantasia Fest and Fantastic Fest but also Midnight sections from the likes of Sundance, SXSW or TIFF, that can bolster their significance beyond a mere niche subsection of popular culture. Yes, not every genre film granted access to exhibition at a big-name festival is all that imaginative, but those that are tend to thankfully overshadow the others’ collective presence.
Even modest successes and failures feel more laudable than the average middling indie drama about flawed protagonists and the carefully curated plot circumstances threatening to exacerbate said flaws. While admitting my own personal proclivity for genre fare above all others, I wholeheartedly feel like there is more to discuss from Jonathan Watson’s Arizona, a whiplash-inducing tonal and stylistic whirlwind wearing the not-too-concealing disguise of socioeconomic commentary, than, for example, Permission or Kodachrome. Though in the interest of total transparency, I equally feel intimidated by its density and unevenness to jump straight in figuring out how its swarm of disparate pieces fit together, if at all. The resulting evidence may unwittingly answer in the negative, yet I’m too awestruck not to parse through it all.
Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Danny McBride and Luke Wilson, the film takes place around the immediate aftermath of the housing crisis in 2009, rendering its near-barren small-town Southwestern setting a casually naturalistic answer to the post-apocalypses of fellow genre flicks. DeWitt plays Cassie, a struggling realtor whose life has already gone sideways trying to pitch the American Dream in such trying times, until she witnesses McBride’s Sonny accidentally murder her boss after a feud over an impending house foreclosure. Sonny takes her hostage and increasingly spirals out of control the more he feels inclined to kill whatever random passerby interrupts what he sees as not threatening Cassie into silence, but rather a civil negotiation among rational adults.
The runtime may only come out to 85 minutes – around 79 not including end credits – but Luke Del Tredici’s screenplay tries to cram a lot stylistically, tonally and intellectually, perhaps more than is ultimately sustainable with its limited framework. Back and forth, it bounces from being a pitch black comedy to a hostage thriller, to a western, to self-reflexive grindhouse exploitation, to a sincere family drama to arguably a proto-slasher film in its own right, and with such delirium brings its own tossing and turning between disturbing, if subtle psychological horror, oddball comedy and sincere, if sometimes too in-your-face dramatic meditations about the ultimate failure of certain mythologized narratives like the American Dream thanks to economic uncertainty and bureaucratic absurdity. It’s a movie that sells itself on being able to seamlessly stitch together all of these concepts, though it ironically somewhat abandons this pretense very early on.
Most of all of this, particularly the latter insights, rears its collective head within just the first act, specifically focusing on DeWitt’s Cassie selling what’s for many the debunked myth of incoming prosperity while trying to internalize it herself as a salesperson, meaning her inevitable character arc entails growing past the fictionalized reality she believes remains attainable. Once she completes this arc around the first act’s conclusion, however, the narrative practically grants itself a license to make its subsequent tornado of intended hilarity and violence a one-hour expedition through unmitigated, no frills mayhem where it gets to enact all of the cinematic identities previously listed with blatantly chaotic rhythm. So aside from McBride’s Sonny as a continued symbolic presence for various themes and historical contexts, for its remainder, Arizona drops its rigorous stimulation for gun-slinging for what it may believe is a valid purpose, but the narrative’s power suffers from it.
Naturally, it’s hard for any writer or director and creative team to effectively pull off such random mish-mashing followed with equally unpredictable regurgitations of each genre aesthetic and atmosphere, though Arizona doesn’t do itself any additional favors by mostly dropping the somewhat academic ambitions that make it stand out. Part of its disappointment is because the first act so capably demonstrated how these underlying motivations can influence characters and thus narrative, quietly reinforcing key ideas through particular actions while composing steady development for said protagonists, while the remaining film excuses its admittedly fascinating genre swirl by enacting plot contrivances attempting to maintain pace. Primarily, though, like conventional wisdom generally suggests, it doesn’t completely work simply because it’s conceptually and overall too jarring to reward audience engagement, which it often thinks it’s doing – and occasionally does, to be fair – with its madcap blitz.
Not to mention, it’s a little strange watching a post-2008 economic collapse-centered film exhibit all of the righteous anger to the lies we’ve been fed and the invisible establishment that perpetuated them, only to then intermittently reignite said anger rather than make it a continuous undercurrent. Such does remain sporadically intact here via Sonny, a divorced husband of two children whose small business idea hasn’t gotten off the ground floor. His character is predominantly focused upon a problematically black and white distinction of morality, particularly when it comes to the people he feels have cheated him. Inciting his rage in the first place is a rigid perspective that Cassie, a mere symbol of the system he believes unfairly duped him, is just as much the problem for his world crumbling down, repeatedly, almost childishly berating her as a liar for engaging in manipulative salesperson tactics.
Not only does their conflict benefit from flirtations with critiquing toxic masculinity and the subsequently unintended side effects incurred by the perceived failure of the ‘father as sole provider’ patriarchal narrative, though also from a slight inversion of the usual class divide with Cassie herself struggling to stay above water, it particularly profits from solid performances by DeWitt and McBride infrequently, yet successfully selling the intended smoothness of the film’s tonal and genre merry-go-round. And truth be told, Sonny is a captivating, if not very likable character not just because of McBride, but also in his implementation as the film’s first source of darkened laughs as it relates to the commentary. As one half of Arizona’s collective symbol for financially besieged middle America, he frequently catches himself in a cycle of belief and betrayal toward Cassie, hanging on like many of us do to the idealized manifestations of reality we try to find the tangibility in, and often finds cathartic humor in the banalities of maintaining this expectation and denying the economically-flavored existential crises engendered.
The intelligence of Arizona is the reminder that the people many may reflexively blame for their financial problems may actually have suffered themselves; that the blame should rather point to the propagators of the damning, commonly accepted success story mythologizing. Then again, the unintended carelessness of Watson and Del Tredici’s film is helplessly losing such morals in the shuffle of frantic genre sprints, bursts and splats. It may eventually come out the other side, but only retrospectively after some fun and often times overly frenetic romping through varying stylistic appropriation. That said, the utter fascination I’ve found in picking apart its many incongruous details has made for a beneficial, entertaining venture in and of itself, which is more than I can say for some other recent genre displays.