Sometimes the ordinary people becoming evil are more frightening than Dr. Hannibal Lector or Frank Booth. The villains like them are downright scary, but they are basically outsiders with monstrous nature beyond our common sense. In contrast, the characters in Sam Raimi’s crime thriller “A Simple Plan”(1998) are nice, ordinary people we can identify with at least in the beginning. We can recognize their human wishes, desires, and motives. We can understand why they are driven into the plot getting bloodier and more complicated. As a result, it is scary to observe them doing horrible things, and one question is immediately popped up in our minds – what would I do if I were in their circumstance?
Their life at some small rural town in the Midwestern region of US is the emblem of a simple American life. In the opening narration, looking back at what happened during the period possibly the darkest time in his life, Hank Mitchell(Bill Paxton) muses on how plain but happy his life have been until that ‘lucky’ incident happens to him and others. He has a decent job, though it does not pay him much, and he has a loving wife, and he also has the friends and neighbors who like him. This is indeed a nice life to anyone on the earth; as one short South Korean review which I read twelve years ago pointed out, I can imagine them as the people in those weekend country soap dramas shown on South Korean TV when I was young.
That fateful incident happens during the afternoon on New Year’s Eve. After visiting the grave of Hank’s deceased father at the town cemetery, Hank, his brother Jacob(Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob’s friend Lou(Brent Briscoe) are on the way to their homes together in Jacob’s pickup truck. Suddenly, a fox, with a hen in his mouth, runs across the road in front of the truck, and they decide to go after that fox which runs into a nearby forest. They fail to capture it, but they stumble upon something more tempting than that in the middle of the forest.; they find a small plane which crashed into the forest, and, besides the dead pilot, its cargo is a bag containing 4.4 million dollars in cash.
At first, Hank think they should call the police, but Jacob and Lou, who have been nearly broke, have a different idea. As far as they know, no one is looking for the plane and the money around their town – so why not keeping the money for themselves? In their view, this is a very good chance to realize each own American dream, and, tempted by this possibility, Hank is ended up being persuaded by them with one condition; he will keep the money in safety for a while until it is confirmed 100% that nobody is looking for it. Then, they will get each own share and live the town forever for avoiding any suspicion.
As the title suggests, this sounds like quite a simple plan to them, but, as you have already guessed, it turns out to be not so simple as they initially thought(It seems they have never watched “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”(1948) – too bad for them). Thanks to their greed, foolishness, and mistrust, the plan begins to go wrong right from the very moment when they load the money to Jacob’s pickup truck. The troubles keep coming, and they try to cover their tracks and secure their safety, but, every time they try, their plight is growing bigger and bigger like a huge snowball rolling along the snowy slide. When they start to realize how deeply they are stuck with what they have done, it is already too late for them to go back to where they were; they must do anything by any means necessary for not being arrested by the police.
After watching the film on VHS in early 2000, I found Scott B. Smith’s novel at the campus library and read it out of curiosity. The novel is one of the most bone-chilling crime thrillers I read during the last decade; it was thrilling to witness the straitened circumstance of the characters getting out of control step by step, and it was also terrifying to observe the dark portrayal of the human nature under psychological pressure. No wonder Stephen King once lamented that Smith has so far published only one novel besides this work(His second work “Ruins”, which was made into a feature film a few years ago, is another taut thriller with psychological trap squeezing its characters. The premise is a far more unreal, but their mental ordeal is as horrible as the creature menacing them none the less).
With the adapted screenplay written by Smith himself, the director Sam Raimi made a first-class thriller. It has several suspenseful scenes to be remembered, and some of them are still capable of making my body tightened. The most memorable scene to me is the one where the loyalty of one conflicted character is hanged on the scale and he must choose between other two characters both of whom he cares about. While watching this scene at last night, I was again marveled by the excellent jobs done by Thornton and Paxton. Their facial expressions and their dialogues say one thing while implying the other things, so they keep us guessing and being agitated till the payoff finally arrives. I still wonder to some degrees – was Jacob’s behavior just an act from the beginning or was it more complex than that?
The movie deserves to be categorized as “country noir”(its best recent example is “Winter’s Bone”(2010), whose heroine faces the darkness of her rural town through ruthless criminal people while searching for her missing father). The bleak atmosphere of a Midwestern town on winter days is well-maintained, and a bunch of crows on the bare tree branches render an ominous tone to the background covered with lots of snow, and the characters discover the evil inside themselves while struggling in the twisted plot and helplessly sinking into the moral quagmire.
Now it sounds a little similar to a certain film made by the Coen brothers. Not so surprisingly, “A Simple Plan” was mainly shot in Minnesota, the same region where “Fargo”(1996) was shot, and Raimi actually got some advices on the location shooting from the Coen brothers, who have been his close friends since the early times in their careers. As a matter of fact, you can easily imagine its finale with Marge Gunderson saying to one of the characters that there is more to life than a little money. I think she would probably solve the case even before the third act of the plot begins, but the town sheriff in this film(Chelcie Ross) is so gullible that he does not sense anything suspicious from his dear neighbors, let alone the outsider whose questionable identity is the major source of the nail-biting suspense in the third act along with several bullets that may not fit into one gun.
Amid the messy situation depicted in the movie, there is a bleeding heart inside the story, and he is Hank’s pathetic loser brother Jacob. The novel version of Jacob is a lot different from Billy Bob Thornton’s appearance(in the book, Jacob is more like Brent Briscoe at least in my imagination), and his role in the story is considerably changed in the film. I do not know anything about how that change was made in the adaptation process, but I can say it was a good choice, because such a dark drama like this film is more effective when it has the character watching what’s going on in horror while standing by the hero being crashing into the abyss.
Thornton’s harrowing performance portrays Jacob as a shabby man with simple wishes. Maybe Jacob is dim and unwise like his drinking buddy Lou, but he turns out to be not as stupid as we thought at first. It may be okay to him to take away the money when nobody looks at him, but what he and his brother do for keeping it begins to trouble him. Their crimes have already taken a toll on his mind, so he desperately clings to his wishes which can be fulfilled by money.
Thornton has a sad scene with Paxton in which Jacob tells his brother about only girl he has ever dated with. Though it turned out that the relationship was a part of cruel bet, he did not mind about that and he was grateful to her, because it was one of few happy times he had in his miserable life. Jacob tries to believe that he can be happy like that with the money, but the circumstance becomes more unbearable to him, so he arrives at the decision which results in the heartbreaking end of the climactic sequence near the finale.
Bill Paxton, who is good as a corruptible decent man, and Bridget Fonda, who plays Hank’s manipulative wife, are also crucial in making the drama in the film work. As your average decent neighbors, they have been content with their mundane daily life, but now the money brings out the discontent and other negative things hidden inside them, so they are gradually turned into a couple of weasels who will stop at nothing for their safety and, above all, the money. Hank is at a loss about what he has become while losing the conscience his brother retains, but he also finds that, once he crosses the line, the rest is, to his horror, very, very easy to do.
Fonda’s character is the most unlikable character in the movie because she is indirectly responsible for the chaos in the film, but I feel a little sympathy to her. As Lady MacBeth/famme fatale of the story, Fonda gets her own moment when she is at the hospital right after giving birth to her daughter; when she and her husband are left alone in the room, she immediately spins her brain to concoct a new scheme for them while showing tender mother love to her child. Later, there is one bitter monologue scene in which she lets out her dissatisfaction with the life with no visible bright future, and I think many middle-class people at this hard time can understand and identify with her frustration and desire.
While operating ruthlessly with its logic, “A Simple Plan” is ultimately a morality play fueled by the dark side of the human nature. We all were taught that, if we come across a bag of money, we should call the police, but I am not entirely sure about what I will do if I am in their shoes. Thanks to this film and the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”(2007), I think I will more likely to do as my teachers and my parents told me, but, as both I and many of you know, we human beings are capable of anything.
The characters in the movie eventually learn that truth while paying the cost far bigger than they have ever imagined. Perhaps they can continue to lead their life while other people around them will never suspect about what kind of the people they really are, but, as Hank bitterly admits in the closing narration, they cannot fool themselves because the consequences of their acts will always be with them for the rest of their life and they know too well about what they can do.
Sandwiched between two major successes in Raimi’s career, “A Simple Plan” can be easily overlooked. Its critical success was a turning point for Raimi; it helped him move on from being the director of “The Evil Dead”(1981) to being the director of “Spider-man 2”(2004). Though “Spider-man 3”(2007) was a disappointing end to his trilogy, Raimi recently proves to us that he has lost none of the horror/comedy skill of his early days through “Drag Me to Hell”(2009), where he plays us like a drum with the sense of a diabolical fun. I hope he will get another good chance to play us like a piano as he did in this film.
An excellent review which I am sure Mr Ebert would have admired. The symbolism of crows was a bit over used,I think. This tempts me to Sierra Madre and maybe Winter Bone, if not Drag me to Hell.
SC: I wrote it as a FFC review, which was posted early in last year.