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Note: This WHYS…? is part of the Bring Back Bridget Fonda series, currently running at 24FPS and E-Film Blog.
A SIMPLE PLAN
DIR: Sam Raimi
What’s It All About?
One day while out chasing a dog that has run off Hank (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) find a light aircraft crashed in the woods. Inside the plane they find a bag filled with $100 bills, totalling $4.4 million. Surmising that, since the plane has clearly been in the woods some time, and they’ve heard nothing about it or the money, it must be drug money that nobody is looking for, they decide to take it for themselves. However, Hank insists that they sit on the cash until Spring, to make certain that nobody is looking for it, and that at the first sign of trouble he’ll burn the money.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Between the Evil Dead films and Spider-Man, Sam Raimi made quite a few films, but they all ended up as cult concerns rather than mainstream hits. When A Simple Plan opened in 1999 it had little real star power (Paxton, Thornton and Bridget Fonda all being well regarded actors rather than huge box office draws) and while it didn’t flop it didn’t make a huge splash either. Over the years it’s gained a following, but still seems to be something of an overlooked entry on its director’s resume.
Why Should You See It?
This is unquestionably Sam Raimi’s best film, and a minor modern classic. The script, adapted from his own novel by Scott Smith, is intelligent and taut, but also grounded solidly in reality. The performances are strong all round, be it the leads or such cameoing character players as Gary Cole. The direction is somewhat atypical of Raimi, more sedate than his usual style, feeling, at times, more like a Coen Brothers film without the winking humour.
It’s a great looking film, using the snow covered landscape of Minnesota to effectively reflect the increasingly cold, harsh, decisions that must be taken after Hank, Jacob and Lou elect to keep the money. It’s also an effective reflection of small town life; the easy interactions that come from everyone knowing everyone, the way certain people are seen as local characters, and the rigid structures that can be felt in communities like this are all keenly felt without being explicitly spelled out.
A low key, slow burn, thriller, A Simple Plan grows more complex and more compelling with every scene, and much of that is thanks to a quartet of exceptional performances. At the centre of the film is a tight knit family; Hank and his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda), who are expecting their first baby within days of the film’s beginning. We first see them as much like any couple in their early 30’s and very much in love, it’s a content, supportive and happy home. What’s really exceptional about both the screenplay and, especially, Fonda’s performance, is the way that, almost as soon as Hank brings home the money, that bag of cash acts almost as a cancer, eating away at everything in its path, and particularly at Sarah, who becomes ever more scheming in her efforts to help her husband ensure that they aren’t caught. Fonda does great subtle work here, you can see Sarah being seduced both by the money and by the process of keeping this secret, becoming less and less herself with every passing day. By the end of the film the dynamic has changed in that house; it’s all paranoia and desperation, and thanks to Paxton’s performance you can see the weight of this, and much else besides, on Hank, the sadness with which he identifies when his wife tells him ‘Nobody’d ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done‘.
The other key personal dynamic is that between the two brothers; Hank with his good looks, his pretty wife, his steady job and his college education and Jacob, something of a social misfit, unemployed, with straggly hair, a deeply lined face and glasses held together with duct tape. Billy Bob Thornton is simply astonishing as Jacob, he absolutely becomes this rather dim but well meaning man, slips entirely into his ill fitting skin. While the other characters become ever more corrupt just because they want money, you can see why Jacob needs it, and sympathise with him even as, under the guise of telling a funny story, and encouraging Lou to join in mocking Hank, he sets his best friend up for a huge fall. Whether he’s playing pathos, comedy or both in the same instant (as he does when describing his relationship with his only girlfriend) he does it with total conviction and reality. Thornton and Fonda also succeed in helping draw out an exceptional performance from Bill Paxton, who can sometimes be rather over broad, but next to their grounded work, he comes to meet them.
A Simple Plan‘s thrills come not in visceral form, but from the growing sense of encroaching doom, it comes from the fact that every one of Sarah’s plans seems to end in bloodshed, from the fact that Lou and Jacob are not especially sharp, from the open question of where the money came from, and who might be hunting it, and from the wide open spaces in which much of the illicit activity takes place, and the ever present possibility of someone simply driving by.
The title is ironic, and becomes more so scene by scene. The initial plan is simple, and so, to a large degree, are the characters, but with every turn things become murkier, and Hank, Sarah, Jacob and Lou have to invent, often in seconds, more and more new lies to cover their tracks. Though there is bloodshed, the film doesn’t wrap up with the consequences you might expect. The violence suffered for one character ends up being mostly psychological; the realisation that all this; the lies, the murder, the shifting relationships, it was all futile. It’s a haunting close to a film that often hits hard.
As I said in the beginning, this is a minor modern classic, and represents the best work of pretty much everyone involved, if you haven’t already seen it I pretty much insist that you do so.
How Can You See It?
Both UK and US DVDs are available, sadly both are devoid of extras.
Next Week: WHYS…? returns to normal service with Dominik Moll’s dark, noirish, LEMMING, starring Charlotte’s Gainsbourg and Rampling.