Arizona has a killer concept for a killer comedy. Set in its titular state a decade ago, in a desert filled with deserted houses whose owners are suffering the aftermath of the housing market collapse, director Jonathan Watson turns the financial crisis into an entirely different crisis, pivoting into slasher tropes. Despite a promising opening however, Watson – helming his first feature film – can’t execute what should be a cutting piece of satire.
If you exited the film off some half hour in, you’d probably walk out with a positive impression. In particular, the prologue is fantastically conceived; we watch as real estate agent Cassie (Mad Men’s Rosemarie DeWitt) struggles to sell a house to a couple. Her pitch is interrupted by screams from a neighbouring (identical) residency. When Cassie investigates – casually popping out the locked back door when commenting on its shoddy workmanship – she finds a screaming wife trying to hold up her husband who’d attempted to hang himself. Cue ceiling collapse. This is the sort of sequence that promises sharp black comedy; a promise the rest of the film can’t deliver.
After a fatal run-in between Sonny, a disgruntled client played by Danny McBride, and an uncredited and especially sleazy Seth Rogen, Cassie finds herself held hostage by the increasingly-deranged Sonny. Sonny is a familiar McBridge archetype: an obnoxious, entitled American. Jody Hill – who’s credited as executive producer – has made a fruitful career out of exploiting this archetype in the likes of Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals. The key to those series is how they counterbalance McBride’s obnoxiousness with genuine sympathy. But in Arizona, outside of some early scenes where his character is somewhat sympathetic, he’s truly one-note.
So too Luke Del Tredici’s screenplay. As mentioned, there’s some clever stuff going on in the first few minutes, but there doesn’t seem to be any depth to the concept beyond ‘how about a slasher set around the GFC?’ Arizona runs for under 90 minutes, yet feels like its treading water for most of its final hour, bringing in new characters – a complacent cop, Cassie’s ex-husband (Luke Wilson) – to pad out a storyline with no meat on its bones.
You can contrast Arizona with recent horror Don’t Breathe to see what might have been. Don’t Breathe took a distinctive conceit – a blind ‘villain’ – into poverty-stricken Detroit, providing incidental commentary on the decaying American working class without making it the be-all and end-all. Had Arizona evinced more interest in developing tension or terror, it might have made up for its paper-thin political commentary; instead it’s ultimately as empty as the abandoned houses plaguing forgotten desert estates.