[This is a re-post of our Arizona review from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film is now available on VOD and in select theaters.]
Is there a limit to the likability factor of Danny McBride? That’s put to the test in the dark comedy/horror thriller Arizona, in which the affable comedic performer takes his “funny but kind of a jerk” sensibility to the extreme, playing a fed-up homeowner in the wake of the housing crisis who stumbles his way into a murder spree—all the while insisting he’s “a really good guy.” Fans of the dark comedy on display in Vice Principals and Eastbound & Down will feel right at home, while first-time director Jonathan Watson continues to push the genre throughout the film’s runtime, shifting from a black comedy to a straight-up horror-thriller. And through it all, Arizona is a wild, violent, unforgettable ride.
The film opens 2009, in the midst of the housing slump, and the story actually revolves around a woman named Cassie, played with verve and candor by Rosemarie DeWitt. Cassie was sold a bad deal and stuck with a mortgage she couldn’t pay, so the man who sold her the house—a realtor named Gus, played by Seth Rogen—offered her a job as a realtor at his company. One day at work, Sonny (McBride) comes storming in, yelling at Gus about broken promises regarding his own house that he can’t afford. A fight ensues, all the while Cassie is on the phone with her creditors, and Sonny ends up accidentally throwing Gus off a balcony and killing him.
Now, a normal person in this situation might call the police. But not Sonny. Instead, he smacks Cassie over the head and brings her back to his house. Tied up with duct tape, Cassie is given a tour of Sonny’s home in brilliantly comedic fashion. He’s about to let her go when she makes a certain revelation that Sonny takes to indicate she’s no different than Gus, and probably is in the habit of scamming other would-be homeowners. From there, things go on a downward spiral of pitch black comedy and violence, leading to a genuinely tense cat-and-mouse game.
McBride is perfectly cast as Sonny, as his inherent charm provides a disconnect between what the audience brings to the film with them and what Sonny actually does. He continues to insist that he’s a good person, and when he kills people he blames it on others (women mostly, by no coincidence). In some ways the film is a pretty damning critique of male violence, especially that of the domestic variety, in which it’s the spouse’s fault for being beat or hurt. The film doesn’t drill too deep into this issue, but it’s certainly there.
The real hero of the piece is DeWitt’s Cassie, even though she’s no Girl Scout herself. That makes the dynamic between these two characters all the more interesting. Cassie is in a rough position just like Sonny, but she’s also stooped to duping homeowners herself to help make ends meet. DeWitt plays this balance wonderfully, and as the film evolves into something of a horror pic, she makes for a refreshingly unique “Final Girl.”
While this is Watson’s first directorial credit, he’s been prepping for his debut for years working as the first assistant director on Vice Principals and Eastbound & Down as well as films like This Is the End, The Interview, and The Disaster Artist. Watson shows a sharp eye for a visually appealing dark comedy, using the Arizona setting to drive home the isolation of the characters which in turn plays a major role in the intensity of the second half of the film. Arizona is genuinely cinematic, which is more than can be said for a lot of major studio comedies, and the work that Watson does here with cinematographer Drew Daniels (who also shot It Comes at Night) is really quite something. There’s a dynamic palette to the entire film, and as the colors and settings grow darker, so does the story.
The housing crises backdrop gives Arizona an edge over other violent dark comedies in that Sonny has a topical motivation, and while it touches on some of the desperation that this event created, Luke Del Tredici’s script kind of fumbles the follow-through on this particular theme. Regardless, the film has plenty of unexpected surprises that keep it engaging on an entertainment level, so while a more cohesive handle on theme might have been nice, it ends up not being a necessity.
Arizona is a special kind of crazy, but it’s also grounded in its own way. Due to some shockingly violent developments at the beginning, the stakes feel real the entire way through, to the point that you’d believe anything could happen next. McBride gets his horror villain on with a likable, charming twist, making this an all the more complicated—and exciting—affair, while DeWitt proves that the hero doesn’t always have to be one-note or predictable. Additionally, supporting turns from Seth Rogen, David Alan Grier, Kaitlin Olson, and Luke Wilson keep things lively, and Watson cleverly navigates the tone as the pendulum swings from belly-laugh-inducing hilarity to edge-of-your-seat tension. Funny and terrifying in equal measure, Arizona is violent dark comedy done right.