A Simple Plan
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Bill Paxton (Hank Mitchell), Billy Bob Thornton (Jacob Mitchell), Brent Briscoe (Lou), Bridget Fonda (Sarah), Jack Walsh (Tom Butler), Chelcie Ross (Carl), Becky Ann Baker (Nancy), Gary Cole (Baxter)
Sam Raimi's masterful thriller "A Simple Plan" is built on a great "what if" situation: What if you and a couple of friends were walking through the woods and found $4 million? Would you turn in it to the police? Or, would you and your friends keep the money and split it amongst yourselves? It looks like the money is from drug dealers ... no one saw you in the woods ... nothing could go wrong, right?
In "A Simple Plan," this scenario is acted out in a beautifully wrought, tragic morality play in the cold, snow-washed backdrop of northern Minnesota in the dead of winter. The film is deceptively simple in conception, yet tense, exhilarating, and emotionally draining in execution. It has deep moral roots that go to the heart of the great paradoxical nature of the human condition: on the one side, trust and honesty; on the other side, duplicity, greed, and violence. The great paradox that is so exquisitely portrayed here is that these conflicting elements of human nature co-exist in all of us, and it takes only the slightest tweaking to give one side power over the other.
Bill Paxton stars as Hank Mitchell, a small-town mill worker who is generally happy in life. He's honest and upright, makes a good living, has a loving wife named Sarah (Bridget Fonda) who is about to bear their first child, and others in the community look up to him. His exterior is everything that is decent and principled in humanity; but, as the film will soon show, this is but a thin, socially guided veneer.
One day, Hank, his simple-minded older brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's drunkard friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), are walking in the woods when they happen upon a downed plane with a dead body in the pilot's seat and a duffel bag filled with $4.4 million in cash. Hank immediately wants to turn it over to the authorities ("Well, it's a police problem now," he announces, as if there are no other alternatives). His initial reaction to the situation is to do what seems right and lawful. After all, it's not their money, and to take it would be stealing.
However, Jacob and Lou easily convince him that they should hide it from the authorities and split it amongst themselves. After all, it looks like it's drug dealer's money, so it's not really stealing, and with it, these three men could buy all those dreams that once seemed so far our of reach ("It's the American Dream in a bag," Lou says). Hank eventually agrees, but only if he is allowed to hold onto the money for several months until the plane is discovered, and they are sure no one is looking for the cash.
This--the "simple plan" of the title--seems straightforward and logical. The three men are not being overly greedy; they're taking their time and making plans to ensure they will not be caught. However, as the days tick by, many things begin to go wrong as their simple plan quickly unspools, and by the time all is said and done, there are several dead bodies to account for.
"A Simple Plan" is an elegantly paced, taut thriller that satisfies on every conceivable level. Based on the novel by Scott B. Smith (who also penned the screenplay), the film walks a carefully balanced line of pure escapist enjoyment and a troubling exploration of modern morality and the evil that lurks in all of us. "Very Bad Things," released a month earlier, attempted a similar trick, and in its own grotesque, comical way, it worked. "A Simple Plan," however, is far and beyond the superior film, not because it takes its subject matter seriously instead of satirically, but because all the pistons in the film's aesthetic and thematic engines fire with stunning accuracy.
Much should be said about director Sam Raimi, who has reached a high level of cinematic maturity with this project. His earlier films, mostly jokey horror flicks like "The Evil Dead" trilogy and "Darkman" (1990), all showed that he had gobs of talent. "A Simple Plan" shows that he has not only talent, but also discipline and a conscience. He never goes for the easy scene or the quick pay-off--everything in the film is carefully built on earlier scenes, which steadily build in crescendo until the end of the film when all the threads come together in a sequence that is logical, believable, appropriate, and utterly heart-rending. That this film could be so exciting and so sad at the same time says a great deal about its range and depth.
Much has to be said about the performers, all of whom are excellent. Paxton truly steps into his own, playing an essentially likable character of great moral shading. Like the leads in the best Hitchcock films, Paxton is the ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, who makes many fatal mistakes and commits horrible acts, yet remains terribly sympathetic. If he were alive, Hitchcock would be proud of many of the sequences where Paxton is close to being caught, and Raimi and editors Eric L. Beason and Arthur Coburn put us on the edge of our seats, hoping against both logic and human decency that he will get away.
However, Billy Bob Thornton's performance as Jacob is the key to the whole film, and if he doesn't win an Oscar, it will be the rip-off of the year. Thornton's portrayal of a slow man who most would label "a loser" is subtle and utterly convincing. Jacob is the buffer between Hank, the intelligent, respected member of the group, and Lou, the town drunk who despises Hank and his often condescending, college-educated attitudes.
Jacob is the film's most fascinating character because he represents a little bit of the two extremes of the moral threesome: like Lou, he is an unemployable loser in life who is either looked down on or pitied; but, at the same time, he is like Hank, in that he has a conscience and a heart. At one point, Jacob asks his brother in a quiet, sad voice, "Do you ever feel evil? I do." It is an emotionally gripping scene because Thornton makes it palpable how his character hates what he is doing, yet is mentally and spiritually unable to do anything else.
There is another scene in particular that demonstrates both Thornton's powerful performance and the film's dramatic strength. In it, Jacob is supposed to be helping Hank trap Lou on tape admitting to a murder. Jacob is uncomfortable back-stabbing his friend, yet he goes along with his brother anyway. The manner in which Thornton plays the scene, how he swings back in forth and his loyalty between his best friend and his only brother, is perhaps is the most finely acted scene in any movie this year.
Kudos should also be given to Bridget Fonda, who at first looks like she will get lost in the story, but turns out to be the film's most diabolical character. Like the Lady Macbeth, she gets sucked into her husband's malevolence with astounding ease despite her early attempts to stay lawful, and then proceeds to surpass him in conniving and murderous intentions. Fonda, with her soft eyes and sweet smile, is a perfectly beautiful actress to hide such inner monstrosity.
Simply put, "A Simple Place" is one of the best films of the year. With its snow-driven cinematography by Alar Kivilo, many will draw comparison to "Fargo" (1996). Although they are different in tone and style, the comparison between the two movies is not without merit. Most notably, both use the frozen countryside as an environmental symbol of the coldness in the human heart and the alienation between people. Somehow, watching these nasty deeds unfold in the frozen wilderness has a kind of unbiased, raw naturalism to it. Watching these same deeds take place in downtown New York or Los Angeles would be banal in its taken-for-grantedness; but, as Terrence Malick knew when he made "Badlands" in 1973, seeing violence erupt in the heartland has a deeper resonance because it is so unexpected.
The ultimate meaning behind "A Simple Plan" is that this kind of malevolence can take place anywhere, that all men are created equal in their capacities for both goodness and evil. The film is deeply ingrained in the mythical psyche of good and evil, and it shows clearly in the end the painful truth that not all evil is punished in the conventional, law-abiding sense. However, because "A Simple Plan" is a deeply moral film, it depicts with unerring clarity that the ultimate price of duplicity and greed is far worse than jail time.
©1998 James Kendrick