Jonathan Watson’s spree killer horror film “Arizona” racks up bodies in a modern-day ghost town, an empty suburb in the fictional town of Harding, where the housing boom has just gone bust. It’s 2009, and real estate agent Cassie (Rosemary DeWitt) is peddling luxuries like whisper touch hinges and customized pools to buyers who know better than to invest in this nowheresville hamlet where most of the windows are boarded and the dead grass is spray-painted green.
Billboards boast that this desert ghetto is “Where life imitates vacation!” It’s really where life becomes a nightmare for single mom Cassie and her 14-year-old daughter Morgan (Lolli Sorenson) when murderous moron Sonny (Danny McBride) imprisons them in his house and grins that no neighbors can hear them scream. But to Sonny, Cassie’s no victim; she’s the villain whose company tricked him into mortgaging the home that drained his bank account and wrecked his marriage.
Watson has a great premise and an eye for the stone lions, abstract metal art, and spinning yard sculptures that mark buyers like Sonny as pretentiously middlebrow. He films ominous aerial shots of beige cul de sacs with zero signs of life and manages to make the yellow afternoon sun look sinister. Yet, as a caricature of American economics, “Arizona” peaks when Sonny flaunts his can’t-miss invention — frozen wine ice cubes that he swears a big store might buy — and brags that one of his weapons is “a Ginsu knife from Kohl’s.” From there, things just get goofy without being any fun.
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Sonny’s right: Cassie is a great liar. In the opening scene, she smoothly attempts to convince a husband and his third wife that the home they’re considering is perfect for families, never mind that she knows its a 12-mile drive to the nearest school. But the sale is interrupted by a cry for help. The desperate man next door has just hanged himself from the ceiling fan, and as DeWitt tries to save his life, Watson cues the trumpets of Mark Lindsay’s rousing 1970 funk ballad “Arizona,” a salute to a hippie cowgirl who’s a ridiculous fraud.
Cassie is six months late on her own mortgage, yet she tells her ex-husband Scott (Luke Wilson) that everything is just wonderful. Never mind that her daughter hates her, and her boss (Seth Rogen in an uncredited cameo) is a pig who orders her to “put those tits to work.” DeWitt is living in a light drama. Then McBride barges in wearing a green polo shirt and Miami Vice visor and muscles the movie towards slapstick.
His Sonny enters angry, a sad sack lashing out at anyone who will listen. He doesn’t mean to become a killer, and once he does, his paranoia doesn’t escalate even though Luke Del Tredici’s script takes it as a given. His showdowns with DeWitt seem to take place on two different planes of existence. They’re both good actors in their own way: DeWitt is always excellent, and when he gets a chance, McBride has proven he can play a human, too. Here, however, he’s been directed to do his Danny McBride thing, a combustive mix of ego and idiocy that keeps his character from ever being scary. At worst, he’s the kind of guy who will throw a beer bottle at a Chili’s restaurant and lose a screaming match with the manager.
The character could work if Watson played up the satire. “Arizona” takes a whack at a couple bigger ideas, like a drunk teen playing mailbox baseball. As Scott and his new girlfriend Kelsey (Elizabeth Gillies) get lost on their rescue mission and ask a gas station if he knows a gated community named Something Del Oro, the attendant notes that half of all the complexes in town are named Del Oro — and they don’t let Mexicans move in. The revelation of Sonny’s sliding gun safe, a museum-worthy exhibit of Second Amendment overkill, goes nowhere. Even the entrance of Sonny’s estranged wife (a wickedly great Kaitlin Olson) has no dramatic impact. It just gets reduced to the punchline of her tacky Jeep, which boasts “Bad Bitch” on the windshield.
That earns a chuckle, but the laughs never get louder than that. A climactic chase scene adheres so closely to the final-girl formula that DeWitt is forced to run around in her bra. Why? The excuse is so inane, even McBride’s Sonny doesn’t buy it. As a debut film, “Arizona” shows that Watson could become a director with interesting ideas, but this housing crisis horror comedy is definitely just a rental.