A SIMPLE PLAN
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Scott B. Smith, based on his novel
With Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda and Brent Briscoe
When I first heard about A SIMPLE PLAN, I expected a stylish thriller full of colorful, goofy characters and cartoonish gore. Nothing in Sam Raimi's filmography would lead one to expect anything different; after making the splatter comedy masterpiece EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, his talent apparently dissipated out in a string of half-hearted genre films. Surprisingly, A SIMPLE PLAN has little in common with the hip, ironic "neo-noir" of Coen, Tarantino, Dahl & co. Instead, it's the kind of ambitious yet unpretentious thriller that recalls the classic days of the B-movie. Who would have expected a genuine tragedy from a guy who once delighted in splashing zombie guts all over the screen?
The protagonist of A SIMPLE PLAN, Hank (Bill Paxton), is a classic noir protagonist: a relatively happy, ordinary guy whose life takes a sudden turn for the worse. In an opening voice-over, he describes himself as a happy man, content with his job at a feed mill and with his marriage to the loving, pregnant Sara (Bridget Fonda). One day, he, his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob's best friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) discover a plane buried beneath a snow bank in a desolate field. Hank goes into the plane and finds a dead pilot and a gym bag containing more than $4 million in cash. The three men theorize that the money came from drug dealers and rationalize that this makes it okay for them to keep it. Inevitably, this decision leads to tensions between them and their families and sets in motion a chain of violent events.
In the EVIL DEAD movies, Raimi's style was showy, to put it mildly. One suspects that if he could have made cannonballs and fire shoot over the heads of the audience, he probably would have. His direction of A SIMPLE PLAN is far more restrained; no Steadicam fetish here. But I don't mean to imply that it lacks visual style; to the contrary, Raimi makes terrific use of locations and a palette of whites, blues and blacks. The climate and landscape of its setting, a small Minnesota town, feels as oppressive as its dismal economy and high unemployment rate. When walking outside, the men are dwarfed by endless fields of snow and dead trees. Raimi includes a number of shots in which birds or trees dominate the frame, with the actors relegated far to the background. (Admittedly, the animal symbolism does get a little heavy-handed. How many times do we need to see crows hovering around before we realize that they're symbols of death?)
Nevertheless, he hasn't completely abandoned the lessons he learned from the horror genre. He uses shock tactics sparingly, most memorably in an early scene where a fox suddenly races into a chicken coop and kills a bird. A SIMPLE PLAN is organized around a string of confrontations, which Raimi turns into tense set pieces. He has a real knack for suspense, yet he also has the kind of feel for rhythmic dynamics that most young Hollywood directors lack.
A SIMPLE PLAN has often been compared to TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, but I was reminded most of Russell Banks' excellent novel AFFLICTION, which shares its escalating sense of dread and the inevitability of violence, its evocative use of winter landscapes, its use of two brothers as central characters and its concern with working-class life. I haven't yet seen Paul Schrader's film of AFFLICTION, but I'm curious to see how much the two films have in common. Raimi's film may be a morality play about the toxic effects of greed, but it's one that recognizes that American life often offers plenty of good reasons to grasp after a sudden windfall. Jacob and Lou are both unemployed and pushing middle age - they can look forward to a dim future of welfare and the occasional odd job. Lou's own wife calls him a freeloader, while Hank describes him as a "40-year-old high school drop-out who's proud when people call him the town drunk." The college-educated Hank may be affluent in comparison, but both he and his wife are trapped in dead-end jobs. (At one point, Sara points out that he'll only get a raise when his boss retires or dies.) For these people, greed isn't an abstract force; it's part of a desperate struggle for a chance to improve their lives.
Paxton's bland, often inexpressive face serves his character well: Hank initially seems like a relatively flat audience stand-in - he's the only one of the three to offer ethical objections to taking the money - but he quickly proves himself capable of murder. All of the three principals are essentially decent men, which makes their fate all the more affecting. As Jacob, Thornton wears a garish wig, fake teeth and taped-together glasses. He may look like a caricatured nerd (in fact, his first appearance was greeted by audience laughter), but Thornton never lets this appearance be the whole of his character. Jacob may be more impulsive and possibly dimmer than Hank, but at least he has a palpable goal in mind: the money is his means of achieving his dream of reviving the family farm.
Apart from rare exceptions like the late Russ Hexter's DADETOWN and Thornton's SLING BLADE, contemporary American cinema rarely takes small-town life seriously. The problem may be even worse in Indiewood than in Hollywood; while some big-budget films mythologize it, low-budget films usually offer a condescending portrait of hicks whom we hip spectators can easily feel superior to. (FARGO is a perfect example. Consensus holds that it's a masterpiece, but it struck me as an extended version of SCTV's "Great White North" sketches.) Judging from my mostly negative hometown memories, these kinds of responses to the right-wing romanticization of small towns are quite understandable, but they're ultimately a dead end. If one wants to treat a subject seriously, one shouldn't patronize one's characters. A SIMPLE PLAN suggests a way out of the sea of irony that divides contemporary American indies from forefatharers like Huston. It's not just a fine film; it's a bridge between American cinema of the past and present.