While True Grit has become the biggest hit ever for the Coen brothers, let’s go back and look at their breakthrough hit. Raising Arizona was released twenty-four years ago and made $29m worldwide, then exceptional for an indie.
Quite often I see filmmakers take liberties with conventional structure, quoting the success of independent filmmakers who love breaking the rules, such as the Coen brothers.
Indeed, Ethan and Joel have always balanced on the verge of arthouse and mainstream storytelling but this structural analysis will show you that the Coen brothers broke into the industry with a rather traditional narrative. Even if there is no clear-cut eight sequence structure, the film is very obviously structured sequentially with a climax every ten minutes or so.
The Coen brothers broke into the industry
with a rather traditional narrative.
I believe that one of the key reasons of the success of this film is the almost constant and relentless pursuit of some goal by our hero Hi. These goals change – and they sometimes change rapidly – but our hero is active most of the time in following his desires. This is a very important aspect of great writing, which too many newbies forget about. When the story changes point of view to one of the antagonists or subplot characters, they too have a tremendous desire to achieve their goals, all making for interesting and cinematic characters.
I firmly disagree with those who say that the hero can be passive in the first act, or doesn’t really have to have a clear goal yet (Michael H., are you listening?). Look at the first two sequences of this movie and see how both the high energy and fast pace come from two powerful, primal desires: first Hi wants the girl, then he wants a child.
I firmly disagree with those who say
that the hero can be passive in the first act
By the way, it’s no coincidence that in True Grit, the Coen’s greatest hit to date, Mattie has a strong primal desire from page one: to avenge the murder of her father.
Okay, let’s have a look at the structural breakdown and what we can learn from this.
Sequence A: Meeting Ed. She wants a baby – but is barren. (10mins)
00.30 H.I. meets Ed for the first time in prison.
01.00 Life in prison: camaraderie, group therapy.
02.00 Parole for Hi but back to prison after robbery.
02.30 Ed’s fiance left her. Hi says “He’s a damn fool.”
03.00 Group therapy session in prison.
04.00 Parole board: back to prison.
04.30 Thinking of Ed.
05.30 Parole board: free.
06.00 Hi proposes to Ed and marries her.
06.30 Hi finds his job is like prison.
07.00 Ed wants a baby but finds she is infertile. Despair.
08.00 Adoption application rejected, Ed loses interest.
09.00 Arizona quintuplets are born, Ed & Hi decide to get one.
10.00 Opening Titles
The first sequence gives our hero a strong goal early on: Hi wants Ed. Plus, it is also clear that he wants to get out of prison. These two ‘wants’ drive the first half of the sequence. Once Hi is out of prison, soon he takes Ed’s desire at heart and by the end of this sequence, a new strong desire is set up: to get a baby, and more specifically, one of the Arizona quintuplets.The sequence ends with the End Titles, neatly on the 10mins mark. This sequence sets up the rhythm of this film as most of the following sequences will be around the same duration.
Sequence B: Getting Arizona Jr. (10mins)
11.00 POV – The Arizona household.
12.00 Hi takes the boys out of their cot one by one but can’t take any away.
15.00 POV – Nathan tells wife to go check on the kids.
16.00 Hi returns to the car without child; Ed sends him back.
16.30 Hi returns to the car with Nathan Jr.
17.30 Welcome Home party for Jr.
19.30 Ed is scared of her responsibility. Family picture.
The first shift of Point Of View comes at the beginning of this second sequence. This will happen more often throughout the film, again strengthening my case that a shift in POV should happen early in an act or sequence, when tension is at its lowest.The sequence ends on a still photo, a popular bookending device. See my analysis of The Untouchables, where both the first and the second sequence end on a still photo.
It can be argued that this is the end of Act One. It is Hi’s goal to keep baby Arizona Jr. and the dramatic question posed at this point is: how will Ed and Hi try to keep their baby – and their secret. The photo also emphasizes that this might be the end of Act One. Still, I will argue that the audience doesn’t really have enough material to build strong, clear anticipation yet. What are Ed and Hi to do? There is no clear plan.
SEQUENCE C: Complications from prison … and Hell. (8mins)
20.30 POV – Gale & Evelle escape.
21.30 POV – Gale & Evelle clean up, steal car, take fuel & drive off.
22.30 Gale & Evelle arrive at Ed & Hi; Gale questions them on baby.
24.30 Ed tells them they can’t stay; Gale to Hi: short leash…
26.30 Hi has a nightmare: the lone biker of the apocalypse.
28.30 Tele Image of the sun rising.
Again this sequence opens with two scenes that are not told from the POV of Hi.
If the previous sequence didn’t end with a clearly defined end goal (they effectively want to keep the baby indefinitely) then this one does, by introducing an antagonist. We now have a character – The Biker – that will have to be stopped before the story is finished.
Another reason why I would argue this is the end of Act One: at the beginning of the following sequence we go to Nathan Sr for the first time since the kidnapping of his son. Also: Act Two is where the hero becomes more active and we’ll see how this applies for Hi in the next sequence. Finally, the previous sequence ends with a stylish image of a huge rising sun, an image that will be repeated at the end of Act Two.
Sequence D: Gale & Evelle leave but Glen and Dot provoke. (12mins)
28.30 POV – Nathan Arizona Sr. talks to press & is angry at FBI.
31.30 POV – Biker watches at Arizona mansion.
32.00 POV – Biker finds trace of Gale & Evelle at fuel stop.
32.30 Hi tells Gale and Evell to leave because there will be visitors.
34.30 Foreman Glen visits with wife Dot; they give advice.
36.00 Glen asks Hi: “How did you get him so quickly”?
37.30 Dot gives Ed advice on everything. Ed & Hi are nervous.
38.30 Glen to Hi: “Heal thyself!” Swingers… Hi punches him in the nose.
Again the sequence opens with three scenes outside the POV of our hero. I believe this sequence is the the first of Act Two for the reasons mentioned above as well as the fact that we see the antagonist(s) pursuing their mission. We also finally see our hero actively protecting his family from outside influences: first Hi tells Gale and Evelle to leave and at the end of the sequence he shows that he is not afraid of Glen, his superior, when it comes to protecting the new family unit.
Sequence E: Hi turns to robbery again. Ed doesn’t like it. (14mins)
41.00 Hi & Ed in car. Hi won’t tell what happened – will get fired.
42.00 Hi robs convenience store, Ed drives off. Hi runs.
44.00 Chase: Hi running, police driving, dogs running.
45.00 Ed hears gunshots, turns back. Hi stops old man, gets in car. (MID)
47.00 Supermarket: shootout while Hi looks for nappies.
50.00 Back home, Ed tells Gale & Evelle to leave: bad influence.
51.00 Gale and Evelle try to get Hi on board for a bank robbery.
52.30 POV – Biker
53.00 Hi’s letter to Ed: “I don’t have the strength of character.”
First, the energy picks up with a typical fun and games sequence, in which Hi shows he still hasn’t changed despite all his good intentions. Ed leaves him behind but at the exact mid point of the movie she turns the car around and goes back to help him after hearing gun shots and realizing her husband may be in serious trouble. After all he was only after nappies.
Back at home, Hi realizes he is a liability to the family and writes a farewell letter, intending to leave. This marks the first visible sign of Ed’s (inner) transformation.
SEQUENCE G: Losing the baby. Ed wants to leave Hi. All is lost.
55.00 POV – Biker camps outside McDunnough’s
55.30 POV – Leonard Smalls with Nathan Arizona: Fair price is $50,000.
59.00 Glen threatens Hi: give up the baby to them or go to jail.
61.30 Gale & Evelle have overheard, take baby, tie up Hi and leave.
63.30 Hi: I’m a changed man. Let’s go get him.
64.00 POV – Gale & Evelle steal nappies, tie up old man.
66.00 POV – Gale & Evelle realise they left baby behind, go back.
68.00 POV – Gale & Evelle pick up baby.
68.30 Ed: Don’t want to go on living with you. We don’t deserve him.
Hi is now a changed man, yet he comes under the greatest pressure from everyone. They lose the baby when Gale and Evelle take him with them and at the end of this sequence, in a clear Cave moment, Ed tells Hi she doesn’t want to live with him any longer. This signals the lowest point for Hi but also his moment of ultimate redemption. He is now ready to take on the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse so we enter into Act Three.
SEQUENCE H: Hi and Ed save the baby. Hi kills the biker (10mins).
70.00 POV – Biker reaches McDunnough house and finds clipping about bank.
71.00 Gale & Evelle rob bank / POV Police on way to La Grange.
73.00 Paint explodes. They crash into Hi and Ed.
74.30 The biker picks up Arizona Jr, shoots at Hi and Ed, throws grenade.
75.30 Ed takes the baby. Hi shoots but the biker comes back for him.
77.00 Hi and biker fight with fists, guns and knives.
78.30 Hi pulls pin from grenade. Biker explodes.
This climactic finale is filmed in a stunning style and it resolves the plot around the archetypical character of the evil biker, yet it still feels somewhat disconnected from the main plot. Apart from Hi’s dream (and the reference of the tattoos) there has been no connection between this antagonist and our hero earlier in the story. Yet we needed him to have a climax of some sort and a clear sense of closure as the character impersonates Hi’s dark side.
SEQUENCE H: Lesson learned – Doing the right thing. (8mins)
79.30 Hi and Ed bring baby Arizona Jr. back to the Arizona family. Nathan enters the room.
80.30 Nathan discusses the reward. No questions asked. Ed: we don’t want money.
81.30 Nathan understands. Hi and Ed confess. Nathan’s advice: “Keep trying!”
84.00 Gale & Evelle return to prison. Hi’s dream montage.
87.00 The End
The return of the baby is in Hero’s (Outer) Journey terms something like a Returning of The Elixir (as opposed to Return With the Elixir). Yet there is a reward on the Inner Journey as both Ed and Hi have learned lessons in the course of this journey.
The third act may have had a clear climax and resolution with the defeat of the Biker, the Coen brothers keep the quirky tone that would become their trademark style by leaving the viewer with an open ending about the future of Ed and Hi.
I would love to hear from Coen Brothers fans who have studied more of their films: apart from their dialogue and visual style, can you identify certain recurring structural elements? Archetypal characters? Themes? Please comment in the notes. Thank you!
If you are interested in learning how to analyze sequences or write sequences in your own work, check out Paul Gulino’s book The Sequence Approach.