A Simple Plan (1998)

D: Sam Raimi
S: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda

A Simple Plan is an attempt by schlockmeister Raimi to do for himself what Fargo did for his pals Joel and Ethan Coen (they worked together on the cult fave Crimewave), a more mature and measured thriller from a man known for demented over-the-top spectacles (Evil Dead II, Darkman). Three men discover a duffel bag full of money in a crashed aeroplane in the middle of a snowy wood at New Year's. After some argument, they decide to keep it. They agree to hold it for a couple of months until the plane is found and they are sure no one is looking for the money, then they'll split it up and go their separate ways. This simple plan turns out to be just the first step on a road to damnation.

Scott B. Smith's novel was distinguished by its casual brutality about human moral conviction. Its depiction of the gradual and seemingly banal slippage from ordinary person to murderous criminal made what was a not terribly original premise (Shallow Grave, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) so gripping. Its snowbound landscapes (which call to mind Tobias Wolff's "Hunters in the Snow") were visually evocative, and coupled with the irresistible simplicity with which the novel was plotted, it was an obvious candidate for film adaptation. It is interesting that Smith himself retains the credit for the rewrite, as it offers the author an opportunity to try a different configuration of his own characters and situations. The result is interesting purely from the point of view of adaptation. Smith compresses the events of the novel into a two hour cinematic narrative and rearranges certain key scenes so that it builds to a more conventional climax and resolution than the novel did. Its focus turns out to be quite different as a result, yet at the same time it is quite faithful to its source in terms of theme and 'feel', an accomplishment Raimi and Smith are to be applauded for.

As a film, A Simple Plan depends upon its cast. Raimi's distant, slow-paced direction allows the story to take its natural course and gives his actors freedom to develop their characterisations and capture the nuances of change which makes it worthwhile. As in the novel, it is the shift in our perceptions of the characters which is at its the moral centre. The film refuses to judge or draw conclusions from the actions of the very different individuals whose lives are put under stress by their (mis)fortune. Instead we are asked to evaluate their degree of guilt, and forced to consider that there is ultimately nothing exceptional about any of them which leads them to their destinies and that we ourselves are no better or worse than they are as human beings.

In all-too-believable twists and turns of fate, each character follows a trajectory of transformation which begins subtly and eventually becomes life-shattering, leading to an inevitable series of confrontations from which there is little possibility of redemption. Not only do we follow the path to self-destruction followed by initially upright and relatively well-to-do Hank Mitchell, played by Bill Paxton (Twister), but crucially we are asked to weigh him against his slow-witted, shiftless, older brother Jacob, played by Billy Bob Thornton (Primary Colors), who first appears a gormless fool, a clichéd idiot savant with little to offer in the way of interest. Thornton is absolutely superb in the part, and captures the sensitivity and ultimately superior moral conviction of the character quite brilliantly. As in the novel, his character is the most sympathetic one, and not because of pathos, but because of Smith's excellent depiction of the fraternal relationship, with its small but significant indications that he understands the situation better than his seemingly more successful and admirable sibling. Thornton capably walks the tightrope between caricature and characterisation and gives him real depth and humanity.

Paxton is effective in the lead, though he is a shade too hysterical at times. His facial gestures tend towards overstatement, and though he exudes just the right physical presence in the role, he is outshined by the subtlety of his co-star's performance. No less important is the contribution of Brent Briscoe as Jacob's best friend Lou, again a seemingly useless layabout who emerges as more than just an antagonist through the careful establishment of his relationship with Jacob, and his embittered, slightly jealous reaction to Hank's relative happiness which contrasts with his own, obviously disappointing life. Completing the quartet of primary characters is Bridget Fonda (Jackie Brown), as Paxton's wife, a problematic character whose response to the situation is not the horrified moral repugnance that clichéd plotting would seem to demand, but active, provocative participation. One key scene near the climax shifts the balance of moral responsibility onto her perhaps more than it should (certainly more than the novel did), yet again this represents an interesting character arc to which the actor rises with obvious relish. It provides an opportunity for speculation on traditional feminine roles, and with perhaps a shade too much of the femme fatale about it, Fonda presses the role to the limits of convention and plays an important part in the development of the story while refusing to abandon the domain of home and motherhood in which the character primarily resides. Supporting contributions from Chelcie Ross as a local sheriff and Gary Cole as an FBI agent are also noteworthy, again taking the expected and embellishing it with little suggestions of the hidden which make them more than just ciphers.

Despite all of this depth however, A Simple Plan is not quite as potent as it might have been. Though it bears certain similarities to Paul Schrader's Affliction, both in terms of setting and in its concern with its characters' moral failure, it remains frustratingly unable to give a real sense of desperation. It is primarily a thriller rather than a drama, and while it has unusual depth for a genre entry, and certainly more than Raimi has tackled to date, it remains tied to the mechanics of its 'who gets killed and when?' plot. This is especially evident at the climax when Smith and Raimi actually portray events only suggested in the novel, shifting the focus from the dramatic implications to the physical details. Though it does then bring the confrontation between Hank and Jacob to a head (which occurred much earlier in the novel) in order to increase the moral and dramatic tension, it offers an 'out' for Hank which the novel did not and which makes it more tragic than chilling. Viewers unfamiliar with the novel will not care or notice this point, but it is still significant in generic terms. It makes the film a shade more conventional than is good for it, and though it is overlaid with an air of tragic melancholy, its much more horrifying suggestion of the complete emotional destruction of Hank is lost on sympathy for Jacob.

It is arguable that the attempt alone is worthy of praise, and A Simple Plan is a welcome relief in the age of hi-octane. The very fact that it has a strong sense of moral responsibility and actively debates issues amid the machinations of plot makes it worth recommending. It is brilliantly performed, scored with eerie effectiveness by Danny Elfman, nicely shot by Alar Kivilo, and directed with admirable restraint by Raimi (though there is nothing wrong with what he normally does when it is done well). Its curious financial parentage suggests that it is non commercial (it comes with funding from the BBC and Japanese and German television), and Paramount are to be applauded for releasing it with such aplomb. It is good to see it obtain Oscar recognition also, and on the whole films like A Simple Plan represent a positive contribution to contemporary cinema. Nonetheless there are better works out there which tackle similar material more effectively by refusing to hedge their bets either way (think Affliction for the dramatic, Shallow Grave for the visceral). A Simple Plan is a good movie, but it is not quite the great film it perhaps promises to be. This should not stop you watching it of course, or from reading the novel, but be warned that it has obtained a degree of critical recognition which belies its relative modesty as a work of cinema.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.