With their first feature, 1984's Blood Simple, filmmaking brothers Joel & Ethan Coen proved that they were talented as hell, and worth paying attention to. But it's simply not possible to see in that film the seeds for their second feature, 1987's Raising Arizona, which is the point at which they became The Coen Brothers, among the most distinctive voices in American cinema.

I mean, it's still an American indie movie from 1987, and you can still think of it in those terms: the regionalism (right there in the title!), the willingness to tell a story that has unsanded edges that a studio producer would have not been okay with, the foregrounding of unconventional but interesting actors. Certainly, as a marketable brand name, we're still years away from the point that you could say "the Coen brothers" and expect most people who follow cinema to know more or less exactly what you mean. But where Blood Simple felt a bit indebted to the brothers' friend and collaborator Sam Raimi, and to the traditions of neo-noir, Raising Arizona feels like a pure expression of some weird and unprecedented new vision. Even the Raimi borrowings feel, this time, more like a wry in-joke and homage, and less of the reflexive "well, we know that works, let's do that" gesture they were three years earlier.

The biggest problem with the film - "problem" being awfully relative in this case - is that it peaks early. Indeed, the opening eleven minutes of Raising Arizona remains one of the strongest pieces of filmmaking in the Coens' career - I would set it next to the opening scene of Miller's Crossing and the "Goy's Teeth" sequence from A Serious Man as the pinnacle of their art, while also contentedly calling it the best stretch of comedy filmmaking from any American film of the 1980s. Everything is fire on all cylinders, especially the score by Carter Burwell, which divides the sequence into four movements, a kind of suite for banjo and whistling, culminating in a joyful eruption of yodeling right as the film's title appears. This sequence introduces us to H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), a petty criminal addicted to knocking over liquor stores, until the that he's processed into prison by Ed (Holly Hunter), and falls in love with her on the spot. H.I. narrates the story of how he courted Ed over his next couple of arrests before proposing marriage, in dialogue that's a perfect mixture of heightened tone, and a deliberately muddy regional accent, read to perfection by Cage as a kind of physically tired, gravelly exhalation. The Coens would very quickly establish themselves as masters of stylised dialogue with one foot in regionalism and the other in mock-literary styles, and H.I. is their first masterpiece in that area.

The rest of the sequence is pretty fantastic too, using dialogue to place a rhythm on the material as much as to convey meaning: the bassy tones of H.I.'s cellmate (Sidney Dawson) droning through his stories of being deprived of food as a child, or the repeated use of "Okay then" followed by a slight pause as the punctuation to scenes, and to "movements" of the sequence, are the two obvious examples, but it's astonishing how well this whole eleven minutes uses different speaking rhythms, call-backs and Cage's hypnotic narration not just to be funny within themselves, but to give order and structure to this whirlwind narrative, all while Burwell's music jangles merrily just a hair below the dialogue in the sound mix. Michael R. Miller's cutting (this is one of only three Coen films where they don't have an editing credit - or rather, where "Roderick Jaynes"  doesn't have an editing credit) of course works with this, too, switching between a very small number of angles to accentuate repeated beats, and occasionally to show when something important has changed in the rhythm of the sequence.

It's not all about rhythm, though. It's also a remarkably concise, high energy piece of storytelling, giving us a film's worth of backstory through punchy comedy, and letting us meet our two protagonists. A lot has to be accomplished quickly, and the filmmakers are all very good at making sure that happens: for example, given that H.I. is doing all the talking, there's no good way to have Ed tell us that she's falling in love (which is, after all, a somewhat bizarre thing for her to do, even in this cartoon of a movie), so Barry Sonnenfeld lets a push-in towards Hunter's face show us the moment that it happens,and Miller uses an unexpected wide shot in an array of close-ups to set up her vulnerability that motivates that push-in.

The downside to having the best comedy sequence, with the best editing, of any American film of its decade as the opening to a movie is that, when it's over, there are still 83 minutes of Raising Arizona left to go. And as good as some of those moments can be - and some of them can be extremely good - there's always a definite sense that the movie loses some of its energy once it slows down and enters the present tense. Here, we find the plot; or rather, we expand upon the plot teased in those opening minutes. H.I. and Ed can't have a baby, and the local unpainted real estate mogul Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) has just become the father to quintuplets, so they decide that there'd be no harm in kidnapping one. Coupled with the prison break of two of H.I.'s criminal friends, the brothers Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle Snoats (William Forsythe), this leads to a very nerve-wracking two days of trying to stay ahead of the cops, and of bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), decked out in ragged leather like a Mad Max 2 extra. What follows is a mixture of farce and sober moral reflection, as H.I. ponders, in his limited way, how he and his beloved have gotten into such a ridiculous, dangerous situation, and how they'll be able to get out.

H.I. is the first truly great Coen character, and the first of their commonsensical moral philosophers, a population that will be steadily filled out with people who, despite the nonsense going on around them, find their way to a fundamentally warm-hearted humanistic way of looking at the world. It's for these characters above all that I refuse to buy into the common criticism that the Coens are chilly and nihilistic, or that they hate their characters; they make their characters work for it, which is very different. Cage's performance isn't as good as Hunter's - she's a natural fit for the Coens, making Ed's rather more straightforward moral attitude, despite her blatant hypocrisy in kidnapping a child, feel sharp and sincere, while handling the louder and more wacky of the two lead roles with a vigorous commitment to the logic of each moment, no matter how silly (her sudden outburst of wracking sobs of joy when she realises that she's a mom now being a case in point). She retains Ed's dignity without making her less of a cartoon, which is a remarkable balance, and it's a pity she was only in a couple of the brothers' films (possibly because she would have taken all of former roommate Frances McDormand's roles, which wasn't going to be an option after McDormand  married Joel Coen).

The point being, Hunter is the better actor, but H.I. is the richer, deeper part, giving the film its moral center to keep all the cartoon wackiness from floating away with the movie altogether, and Cage's rough vocal delivery and perpetual sleepy look are just what the part needs. Largely based on his performance, Raising Arizona turns out to be an unexpectedly sweet film, maybe the only nakedly sentimental movie the Coens have ever produced, even if they undercut the thickness of that sentiment with a ironic final line that deflates some of the portent of the final monologue.

Still this is ultimately a violent slapstick comedy about criminals and kidnappers, not a character drama, and it does not disappoint. The impeccable casting is part of this (right down to M. Emmet Walsh as a colorful character who does absolutely nothing but look greasy, and Lynne Dumin Kitei as the quints' mother, in a role that requires nothing but being able to hold rubbery facial expressions), and so is the layered writing, which continues the prologue's tendency of using certain words and expressions as motifs throughout the running time. And a lot of it is sheer visual storytelling prowess, such as the echoing of important compositions (Cage on the ground, in a wide-angle lens close-up, being a particularly important one), or even the repetition of set-ups. Burwell's score adds one more great motif, based on a traditional murder ballad that Ed sings as a lullaby, which is tweaked to be both sweetly dreamlike and menacing, as the moment needs.

He does, unfortunately, shift towards bland synthesizers in the second half of the movie, right around the point that the screenplay abandons its slapstick creativity and play with repetitions, and focuses on tidying up the plot points. Barring a great bank robbery scene, with some of the best dialect-driven humor in the whole film, the second half and especially the last third of Raising Arizona is not, in general, as inspired, visually creative, or funny as the first half. It feels more like a film that needs to follow its storytelling logic to a foregone conclusion, rather than constantly striving to surprise and delight us. Which is fair, I suppose. But it certainly doesn't shake the feeling that the movie is frontloaded.

Still, the treasures it's frontloaded with! Hunter and Cage; Goodman proving how comfortably he could fall into the cadences of the Coens' erratic dialogue; the little grace notes about economic distress under the Reagan presidency that give it some bite, rather than just being colorful comic noise; the punctuative editing that makes rhythm itself part of the joke. The 1980s were a period during which comedy films were increasingly sloppy and indifferently made, a trend that has never reversed itself; Raising Arizona stands as a magnificent corrective to that, a formally airtight comedy in which formal repetitions and stylistic creativity are themselves one of the major sources of humor (especially if we count the dialogue as formally and stylistically precise, which I think we absolutely should). It is as well-made as any other indie film of the late '80s, and frequently hilarious on top of it, and hilarious in a particularly idiosyncratic way that would soon come to be the marker of its directors' darkly ironic worldview. It takes very little to be one of the essential American films of the 1980s, a bleak decade for that national cinema, but even so, Raising Arizona is certainly one of the era's highlights.