Perennial funnyman Danny McBride as a murdering psychopath? Okay, sure, it makes some sense. He’s managed to craft a certain niche for himself playing sadsack losers with a violent streak, but always done for maximum comedic value. His role in Arizona is similar to that, just cranked up to 11, and the sheer lunacy of his performance is the brightest spot in a film that struggles to overcome an odd tonal imbalance, and a strong central premise that never quite meets its potential.
While McBride is the centerpiece, the leading role actually belongs the uber-talented Rosemarie DeWitt, playing downtrodden real estate agent Cassie. In the overpriced ghost town of Harden, Arizona she’s finding it hard to make ends meet, this being just after the devastating 2008 housing market crash. She can barely afford to keep her own house, much less sell one to somebody else, and her struggle would seem to be a reason to bond with Sonny (McBride), who thinks he’s been swindled on a house by her boss (Seth Rogen). The presence of Rogen instantly brightens up what is a depressing opener, but when Rogen goes toppling over the balcony, dead about 3 minutes after first appearing…well, all bets are off. With Sonny having killed Cassie’s boss, he can’t have any witnesses so he kidnaps her without any real plan what to do.
So there ain’t much bonding going on, even though they share more in common than they realize. His life has degenerated into shit just as badly as hers. They share not only financial hardship but personal struggle. He’s got problems with an angry ex (Kaitlin Olson), while Cassie is divorced from her dopey ex-husband (Luke Wilson) who left her for a younger woman, and keeps angling to have their daughter come live with him. She’s at least partially responsible for the crisis that turned the town into a desert wasteland, and he one of its unintended victims. But there isn’t a lot of sympathy to go around for either of them, especially when the bodies start piling up. Sonny goes unhinged and starts slaughtering any potential witnesses, including hapless cops, security guards, and any former lovers who stroll into his path. He even targets Cassie’s daughter, forcing her to fight to protect her child from the increasingly deranged killer.
Throughout all of this, Sonny insists that he’s still the “good guy” of this situation, that it’s people like Cassie who have sent him over the edge. He’s not totally wrong on that, which makes our feelings towards Cassie cloudier than they should be. It would be one thing if screenwriter Luke Del Tredici actually explored the parts both had in causing their murderous predicament, but he’s more interested in watching Sonny kill in increasingly silly and gruesome ways. The zany turn the film takes only works in part, though, and that’s largely due to the performance by McBride who continually ramps up Sonny’s psychosis. Eventually McBride drops the act and starts just being himself, but that’s fine because his boorish arrogance is exactly what the role needed. On the flipside, I found DeWitt to be a little too passive. She has some snappy exchanges with McBride and their chemistry is just this side of wonky, but as a woman who is being chased by a homicidal homebuyer she isn’t as invested as Arizona needed her to be.