Wednesday, November 19, 2014

From My Collection: A Simple Plan Movie Review

My history with A Simple Plan is very special. In 1998 I had seen lots of excellent movies that I really admired, but had yet to find a perfect 10. On New Year’s Eve I saw three movies. One of them was Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, a movie I didn’t have any significant expectations for outside of being interested in Billy Bob Thornton and the premise of the film: three ordinary men find a bag full of money. What should they do with it? It was probably about halfway to two thirds of the way through when I had a realization that the film was on its way to my standard of perfection if only it could avoid any third act missteps. And then it made it. It arrived to the end and Scott B. Smith, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, had made all the right choices and I stood in awe of this minor little film that was simply astounding.

It’s worth nothing that the snow-covered landscape and criminal plotline called to mind Fargo, which had been released only two years earlier. The biggest difference is thematic. While Fargo concerns the fruitlessness of crime and the disregard for others contrasted with the goodness of the police chief and her family, A Simple Plan is about the extent to which an average man would go to protect himself and the criminal wrongdoing he’s engaged in. But Smith forces us into having a greater sense of empathy for his criminal protagonist because his first seriously morally questionable act is done in the interest of protecting his slow-witted brother. This is unlike Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, whose motivation is entirely self-serving.

So the question that plagues Hank (Bill Paxton) is about what to do with four million dollars he finds in a downed airplane while walking in the woods with his brother Jacob (Thornton) and Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), the town drunk. Hank is a good man always wanting to do the right thing not because he’s afraid of getting caught, although that’s part of it, but because he understands that doing the right thing is a good in itself. He wants to inform the authorities of the money. Lou insists it’s likely drug money that no one knows about and no one will come looking for. This scene illustrates for the first time how good Paxton is. Watch how his face and body language slowly transition as he goes from staunchly insisting on turning it in to considering alternatives, and then finally the relief that falls over him when he ultimately decides he’s about to make his family a million dollars richer.

The next great moment is watching Hank’s wife, Sara (Bridget Fonda), respond negatively to hypotheticals about a suitcase full of money, but when faced with an actual pile of it on her dining room table, her face lights up. No one can honestly entertain hypotheticals. Cold hard cash staring you in the face will change you, Smith seems to be saying. And it’s Sara who turns out to be the real devious mind. Sara turns out to be a Lady MacBeth-like wife, egging Hank on to more and more impossible choices that sink them further into moral quandaries. She comes up with the idea to put some of the money back so that when the plane is discovered in the spring, no one will think it had previously been found. It’s this journey back to the plane that leads to the first murder when Jacob panics and hits a farmer over the head. Hank makes a crucial decision in the interest of protecting his brother. He decides to make it look like an accident, but along the way finds the farmer is still alive and suffocates him. Hank uses this to dissuade Jacob from turning himself in. Because Hank killed the man, it becomes his decision. Here’s one point where I felt watching it this time that a more interesting choice in terms of ambiguity could have been made. If we don’t see Hank suffocate the farmer, then we would have to decide whether or not he’s lying when he tells Jacob he did. It would become a question of whether you believe Hank is so protective of Jacob that he would lie about killing to save him or that he actually did the act, also as a protective measure and not in the interest of self-preservation.

I had only recently discovered Sam Raimi back in 1998 through the Evil Dead trilogy. Of course I was a huge fan. Raimi was best known for those films, but had also directed a highly stylized western and a comic book movie. He was much more of a cult film figure than a serious filmmaker, but I think A Simple Plan turned out to be as good as, dare I say, Hitchcock. That’s a bold statement, but he builds tension into every scene. Yes, I think the character development and plotting successes rest squarely on the shoulders of Smith’s screenplay and novel on which it’s based, but Raimi’s direction emphasizes the working class blue collar roots of the characters and their simple lives that perhaps seem, to them anyway, bleaker than the snowy surroundings of rural Minnesota.

From the Wikipedia plot summary of Smith’s novel, it’s clear to me that Smith made some truly exceptional choices with regard to what to leave out of the story. The novel is so full of additional murders that make Hank out to be cold-hearted, entirely selfish, and without a steady moral compass. Hank of the movie comes across as much more trapped by circumstances that he shouldn’t have got himself into, but now that he’s involved, he has to do what he can to prevent going to prison. I can’t imagine he’s nearly as sympathetic in the novel.

Apart from the obvious MacBeth overtones there is also a heavy influence of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. A Simple Plan is, after all, a story about what the American dream can do to men. Steinbeck’s novel touches on that as well. Both stories feature characters who strive to achieve a level of economic independence that is not afforded their station in life and is unlikely to come. Ironically, although Hank is the one to tell Jacob and Lou that “you work for the American dream, you don’t steal it,” he’s the one who does just that.

Billy Bob Thornton was simply astounding in this film. He’s never equaled this level of acting craft and empathy. I think the same can be said of Paxton, whom I generally regard as a solidly reliable, though not technically gifted, actor. Chelcie Ross as the Sheriff and Gary Cole as an FBI agent who shows up to investigate at the end add some great color in supporting roles.

Raimi’s direction of this film continues to move me every time I watch it. By the way, I’m rarely moved to emotion by Hitchcock even while I succumb to the thrills and tension and deeply admire his craft. By the time the story arrives at its terribly tragic denouement, as equally inspired by Of Mice and Men as some of the themes, I am so invested in the fate of the characters and so certain they are home free that the final turn is just gut-wrenching.

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