Bill Paxton tries to follow Billy Bob Thorton's lead.

 

Not So Simple

Sam Raimi strips away his camera tricks
to create the cold and complex
A Simple Plan
.

by Coury Turczyn

 

With A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi–the swoopy-camera auteur behind the Evil Dead series, not to mention the executive producer of TV's Hercules and Xena–has directed his first completely unentertaining film. No wacky pop culture references, no air of B-movie madness, not even an inside joke or two. Instead, A Simple Plan is an A-list art film all the way–heavy themes, great performances, gracefully composed shots…heck, even symbolism. For this, Raimi has at long last received the critical accolades he's lacked for most of his career (critics love it when a populist gets "serious").

But for all its sturdy construction and appealing casting, A Simple Plan remains strangely unmoving in the usual Hollywood ways, seeking an intellectual buzz instead of visceral thrills. It's a car wreck of a movie–a study of personal destruction you can't help but be morbidly fascinated by. From the outset, you know everything will go straight to hell for its characters; the only thing pulling you through the movie is to find out just how the self-destruction will occur. On the surface, the moral of the story isn't particularly subtle or surprising (greed is bad, the pursuit of money can change you in really nasty ways, etc.); but the writing and acting is so spot-on, so realistic, that A Simple Plan is creepily compelling. Whether or not you actually care about any of its characters, or their individual downfalls, is entirely up to your own patience with human weakness.

Based on a novel by Scott B. Smith (who also wrote the screenplay), A Simple Plan is set amid the snowy wasteland of a small Midwestern town. Bill Paxton plays Hank Mitchell, an ordinary fellow in every way–he's got a wife, a decent job, and a baby on the way. He does have a college education, and perhaps somewhere deep inside this eats at him–he's what you'd call a happy man, but one whose life offers little opportunity for change. He could end up working at a feed store for the rest of his life. Fate, however, conspires to knock him from this path.

While walking through a snow-filled nature preserve with his older (and slower) brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thorton) and his brother's drunken pal Lou (the flawlessly naturalistic redneck Brent Briscoe), Hank comes across a crashed airplane–one that's apparently been sitting there undetected for a while. When they open the plane's hatch, they discover a bag filled with over $4 million.

What to do? Or, more importantly, what would you do? That's the crux of A Simple Plan, how a regular guy–somebody just like you or me–reacts to such overwhelming temptation. You're probably telling yourself right now, "I'd give the money to the police." But would you? The fellows quickly figure out that this must be drug money–money that nobody will be claiming any time soon. Who would it hurt to keep it for themselves? Resistant at first, Hank offers a compromise: That he will store the money until the plane is discovered. If no mention is made of the missing cash, then they will split the money and leave town, going their separate ways. Simple. Naturally, everything goes murderously wrong, and we get to watch as the trio second-guesses each other to death.

Typically, in a caper movie such as this, you are allowed to root for one of the protagonists–somebody you want to eventually get the money, no matter what kind of hell he has to go through. But A Simple Plan offers the intriguing twist of approaching its story with utter realism–this is no get-rich-quick escapist fantasy. This is a look at how even good people's morals can shift to what we'd commonly call "evil," a transformation that somehow becomes understandable through the course of the movie. Raimi and Smith coldly expose the difference between our idealized selves and reality; we might talk a good game about honesty, as Hank's wife (Bridget Fonda) does at first, but when faced with that much money, who will we turn into?

A Simple Plan records Hank's descent in fascinating detail, watching his good intentions go horribly bad. Bill Paxton's bland, everyman features have never been put to such good use–here, they are a dramatic strength instead of a detriment. How could such a nice guy end up doing such horrible things? Even Paxton seems surprised at the moral predicaments his character finds himself in and the snap decisions he makes. But it's Billy Bob Thorton's performance as Jacob that makes A Simple Plan more than just a psychological dissection. At first, he appears to be a typical movie dimwit, and we expect him to take the typical course of action of movie dimwits. But Thorton reveals so many different shadings to Jacob–his sense of humor, of fealty to his brother, of personal justice–that his actions become unpredictable. With A Simple Plan, Thorton proves he's the best serious character actor we have today.

Despite Raimi's unexpectedly straightforward approach, A Simple Plan is probably the gutsiest movie he's made yet. It would appear that he spent most of his energy directing his actors instead of his camera shots. And while the result is not exactly enjoyable in the traditional sense, it's nevertheless fascinating. But I do hope Raimi doesn't leave the demons of The Evil Dead entirely behind.

 

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