Review: The Sting of Arizona Lands Between the Laughs

Although the horror-comedy Arizona is the first feature from Jonathan Watson, he has actually spent many years working second unit on films and TV series created by the likes of Danny McBride and Seth Rogen (both of whom are featured in this film). Collaborating on such things as The Green Hornet, This Is the End, The Interview, and most recently, The Disaster Artist, as well as series like “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals,” Watson has certainly paid his dues and absorbed how to blend both the smart and the stupid to make something great…sometimes.

Image courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

The filmmaker’s first smart move was casting Rosemarie DeWitt as Cassie, a single mother of 14-year-old daughter Morgan (Lolli Sorenson). Written by Luke Del Tredici (a frequent scribe on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), Arizona is set in 2009, during the early months of the housing crisis. Cassie is a real estate agent whose own home is underwater financially and she is desperate to pull together enough money to keep it out of foreclosure. She’s still close to her ex-husband Scott (Luke Wilson), who feels a twinge of regret about being a terrible husband, and even mentions this to his new girlfriend Kelsey (Elizabeth Gillies).

The setup to Arizona is quite effective in establishing a community-wide sense of despair and helplessness, and it becomes clear that a great number of residents and clients were given bad loans to purchase their homes. One of those people is Sonny (McBride), who comes into Cassie’s office one day to confront the man who sold him a home he couldn’t afford (Rogen plays the boss in an uncredited cameo). The two get into a physical struggle and Sonny accidentally kills the man. Wanting to get out of there as fast as possible without any witnesses, Sonny knocks Cassie out and takes her to his house to begin negotiating letting her go in exchange for her silence, which she is more than happy to agree to. But Sonny is no dummy (he is, actually, but he doesn’t think he is), and he realizes that all realtors are professional liars, so he’s not so quick to take her word on anything.

Arizona ramps up from an accidental death and a misunderstanding that sees Sonny realizing he has very little to lose by becoming a full-blown murderer. When his ex-wife (the very funny Kaitlin Olson) shows up unannounced, he’s forced to tie her up as well and before long, they begin to argue and, well, Sonny is unstable, so you can guess where this all leads. Sonny and Cassie don’t really bond as you might expect, but they do seem to form a mutual respect for the other (he seems dead set against killing her, using her more as a witness to his spree), but when he decides to use daughter Morgan as leverage against Cassie, she turns on him, which brings the police (well, one officer, played by David Alan Grier) to the house; even Scott and Kelsey show up to help.

McBride has made a nice living playing bonafide assholes, but Sonny is something more unsettling, while still being amusing most of the time. The film doesn’t shy away from blood and (infrequent) gore, but it also does a deep dive on Sonny’s psyche to figure out whether he got this way after a series of wrongs done to him, or whether the bad things happened because he’s an unbearable jerk most of the time.

It’s an interesting question that never really gets answered by director Watson, and that’s one of the reasons the film’s payoff isn’t wholly satisfying. DeWitt is really strong here as both the protective mother and a woman who refuses to let this entitled man get the best of her or turn her into a hapless victim just because he’s having a bad day. But in many ways, Sonny represents the ugliest of Americans, who refuses to accept any of the blame for the bad things that have happened to him or acknowledge that any of his decisions were poor ones. The closer you look at Arizona, the less funny and escapist it becomes, and I’m certain that’s by design. The exercise doesn’t always work, but when it does, it can sting.

The film is available today on VOD and Digital HD.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.