Thoughts on “Arizona”

So, as I’m working from home, at times I find myself looking for things to have on TV while working to provide background noise and something for me to look up at while doing things like compiling and the like, at least on the days when “Dark Shadows” isn’t filling that role. One day last week, it was coming up on the end of my day and I wasn’t really doing anything major, so I was half paying attention to “Arizona”, a 2018 dark comedy thriller. This got me musing about dark comedy and movies like that and one of the issues that movie has fitting into the genre.

The description stated that the main premise was about someone getting revenge against a real estate agent for the housing crisis, implying that the main character was the person he was explicitly getting revenge on. That’s not what the movie was about. And part of the reason the movie wasn’t about that was because the movie was trying to do comedy, and so ended up making the main antagonist a bumbling character mostly stumbling his way through the events of the movie. As such, he couldn’t have had any real plan that he was acting out, and so instead had to kill the jerk boss of the main character — a woman — by accident (as far as we know) and then end up taking her captive out of panic. So far, so good. This works as a comedy thriller premise, even if it isn’t really what the description promised.

The issue is that if you create an antagonist that’s essentially an everyman with a potentially valid complaint, if exaggerated — there were claims made about what would happen that didn’t, which the antagonist calls lies, but it’s not at all clear that the boss real estate agent knew about that when he sold the house/plot — then the antagonist ends up being sympathetic. This also isn’t a problem for a dark comedy thriller, and in fact that premise can work well as the two of them end up in more mad situations, at least in part because as things go along the protagonist feels sympathetic towards the antagonist and doesn’t just want to escape, but wants to do so in a way that doesn’t hurt them overmuch. The antagonist, in fact, seems to be deliberately trying to invoke that, so it could have been done.

But the movie doesn’t do that. As things go along, it ends up trying to make the antagonist more unsympathetic by having him do more and more horrible things and show less remorse, the biggest one probably being at the end where he picks off the protagonist’s ex-husband with one shot and then crows about how great a shot it was. The end is entirely based on not finding the antagonist at all sympathetic, as he is about to fall down some steps and is clinging to the protagonist and calling out for help, and she instead kicks him off of her with a defiant one-liner. If we were going to feel sympathetic towards him, that would make us unsympathetic to the protagonist. I will say that, given what he does to her and her daughter and others in the movie, the moment worked and her response was totally justified. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it works against the rest of the movie.

Throughout the movie, even at the end, the movie is doing two things: interspersing jokes and making the antagonist look pathetic. Even towards the end, the ex-husband’s girlfriend essentially kills herself by backing the car into a power line and then lighting it on fire while trying to get some light. Throughout the movie, it returns to the two of them bickering in between the mortal danger of the protagonist and her daughter. This sets up a movie where there are very, very serious elements interspersed with ridiculous comedy, causing mood whiplash. They even do it in scenes, as they set up the antagonist with a bad back, which means that at times he will be saying or doing very nasty things and then stop to wince over his back or complain that he can’t, say, bury a body because of it. So we end up with a movie that seesaws between exceptionally serious and ridiculously comedic.

Now, I’m not an expert on dark comedy. But in my opinion, dark comedy works when the comedy is the main component of the movie. The movie can be serious and/or scary at times, but a good dark comedy isn’t a dark story with some jokes (like, say, “Nightmare on Elm Street”). It’s generally the case that a good dark comedy is a comedy first, and the thriller and dark elements are there to serve the comedy. One of the easiest ways to do this is to start with a dark but utterly ridiculous premise — such as, say, what might happen if two people who take a potion to keep themselves preserved actually die — and carries that all through the movie. This movie could have started with the premise of someone who hatches a madcap plan for revenge on people who kinda deserved it or else the premise of getting sucked into it because of an accident caused by the boss real estate agent having a really bad temper and attacking the protagonist. But instead, it starts with the latter one but does nothing with it after the first little while, leaving us with a standard thriller movie — woman must escape psycho who threatens her and her daughter — that they’ve stuck comedy into, sometimes inappropriately.

To be honest, what they do to the antagonist seems to me like an attempt to channel the concept of “Nice Guys[tm]”: someone who claims that they are a nice person and often at least seems to act like one who really, really isn’t, and perhaps is as bad or worse as the jerks he rails against. This fits neatly in with the overtly jerky real estate boss and the fact that at times the mask “slips”, as well as the attempts to convince the protagonist to help him and the final plea at the end followed by a violent death. Given the state of modern media, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that was what they were trying to do.

I will say that it’s not a terrible movie. It’s better than some of the horror/thriller movies I’ve been watching. I’m only commenting on it — as, again, I was half paying attention to it — because of how it seems to miss what a dark comedy should be, and missing that is the main thing that makes it an okay movie instead of a good one.

3 Responses to “Thoughts on “Arizona””

  1. My Views on Streaming/DVDs | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Thus, the big advantage that Shomi had was that it would fit nicely into how I already watched TV. When that one died and Crave came to cable, it also fit in there, but it has an advantage that you get the on-demand part but it also runs something like seven channels that run their shows or movies at various times during the day, which means that not only can I watch it on-demand as I like but also if I’m just looking for something to have on for noise or for something mildly interesting when I have nothing to do I might be able to find something interesting there, making it about as useful as every other channel I have on my cable subscription. That’s how I came across “Arizona”. […]

  2. Losing Sports Showed Me … Just How Much Available Entertainment Sucks | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Due to the pandemic, I ended up working from home, and whenever I do anything at home, at least, I need noise.  At work, I tend to use noise to drown out the noise around me when it gets distracting, and so use music and SF Debris for that.  If I go into work when no one is there — my normal early start time or on weekends — then I don’t really need to have noise and can enjoy the silence.  But at home I don’t like the silence, and so need to have something on to generate some noise.  And my experience with game playing has demonstrated that I like to have something that I can look up at when I don’t need to pay attention to the screen, and so that means having the TV on (my main desk in the office is set up so that I can see the TV from there, although at times if I’m playing a louder game I can’t hear what’s happening on the TV).  And early on in the process, I was looking for there to be something on TV to watch and adjusted my cable packages and the like to try to get stuff like that, because when I’m working the last thing I wanted to do was change the channels every half hour or even every hour, or have to enable the next episode.  What I want is something that I can leave on for a couple of hours at a time, which is why I ended up watching Lifetime-style movies like “Arizona”.  […]

  3. Thoughts on “The Sandman” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] reason is that it ties into two movies or sorts of movies that I also oddly liked.  The first is “Arizona”, where it comes across a lot like that and the other sorts of movies that you’d see on […]

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