Simple Plan, A (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Beware things that are described as "simple." While this is not the central message of A Simple Plan, it's certainly a byproduct. From the real world, we all know that things which are supposed to be simple - a basic plumbing job, minor car repairs, etc. - frequently turn into intricate nightmares, eating up time, effort, and patience in equal quantities. In Sam Raimi's superior thriller, Hank (Bill Paxton), Jacob (Billy Bob Thorton), Lou (Brent Briscoe), and Sarah (Bridget Fonda) discover that a seemingly uncomplicated, foolproof plan to make them all rich is not without bloody ramifications.

When A Simple Plan begins, Hank is a happy man living out his life in a quiet, rural Midwestern town. He has everything he could possibly want: a pregnant wife he loves, a decent job, and friends and neighbors who like and respect him. Then, one winter day, something happens that is destined to change the fabric of Hank's existence. Out in the woods, he, his mentally-slow brother, Jacob, and a friend, Lou, stumble upon the snow-covered wreckage of a small plane. Inside, they find the mummified corpse of the pilot and a stash of $4.4 million in cash - "The American dream... in a gym bag." Hank wants to leave the money where it is and phone the authorities. Jacob and Lou, however, argue that they should claim the loot as their own, since it probably belonged to drug dealers in the first place. At first, Hank resists, but, eventually, he gives in. Soon, however, the seeds of mistrust infiltrate the small group, pitting brother against brother, and friend against friend, and, as the circle of people who know about the money expands, the threat of discovery grows, until one incident elevates the stakes to life-and-death.

Director Sam Raimi, working from a script written by Scott Smith and using groundwork laid by John Boorman (who, at one point, was set to helm this project), does a marvelous job of depicting the growing tension between the characters. While there are moments that offer shock value, Rami's primary goal is to gradually build the suspense. He draws us into the story by making Bill Paxton's Hank a Jimmy Stewart-type of nice guy - the sort of man it's virtually impossible not to identify with - then showing his slow, gradual spiral into the abyss of greed and self-interest that captures nearly everyone who crosses A Simple Plan's screen.

Set against a snowy backdrop that recalls the Coen Brothers' Fargo (indeed, Raimi, who has frequently collaborated with the Coens', asked his friends for advice about filming in such conditions), A Simple Plan is saturated with atmosphere. The story is as bleak and chilling as the setting, but, as is his usual style, Raimi injects elements of macabre humor into the movie. This is necessary, if only to momentarily interrupt the constant escalation of tension. Unbroken, A Simple Plan's suspense might be difficult to take.

The plum role belongs to Billy Bob Thornton, who, in a way, is re-interpreting his lead character from Sling Blade. However, while Jacob is slow and gentle, he's not as dim-witted as he first seems. This is the kind of visible and challenging part that sometimes earns actors Oscar nominations, and, in a year that has been lacking in standout performances, it will be difficult to fault the Academy if Thornton is recognized. This is a strong portrayal, and certainly the most striking that A Simple Plan has to offer.

That's not to say that the other performances are subpar. Bill Paxton, who, with roles in films like Twister, Titanic, and the Mighty Joe Young remake, has made himself into a bankable and likable guy, uses that image to good effect here. Paxton's part is deceptively complex in the way he shows how paranoia, greed, and deception can erode the conscience of even the best-intentioned of men. Brent Briscoe plays Lou as the most untrustworthy and avaricious of souls. And Bridget Fonda offers solid support as a woman who stands by her man - when she's not taking control of his life, that is.

To date, Raimi is best known for the cult classic Evil Dead series, but A Simple Plan is the kind of well-made motion picture that should appeal to a wide audience, thereby lifting the director to a new level of mainstream acceptance. In an era when the technological thriller is taking control of the genre, it's refreshing to see something that relies more on the "old fashioned" plot devices of style, suspense, and the occasional red herring than on gadgets and pyrotechnics. Still, the characters are at the heart of A Simple Plan, and the gruesome complexity of their interaction elevates this film to the level of a midwinter treat.

Simple Plan, A (United States, 1998)

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe
Screenplay: Scott Smith based on his novel
Cinematography: Alar Kivilo
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1