The landscape is snowy and nondescript, the locale an indistinct somewhere. Think Fargo shot by, I don’t know, Ingmar Bergman. Someone muses that the crows cluttering the tree branches are just hanging around, waiting for people to die. A sane director would tick that off as “foreshadowing” and then get on with things. Sam Raimi, being a little crazy, doesn’t let it go.
We get crows and more crows, including the ones pecking out the eyes of the pilot of a crashed plane and the ones already in the trees. In one fancy crane shot, Raimi looks down on one of his wayward characters and moves the camera just so, describing a tortured arc that keeps the damn birds just inside the frame. In other words, Raimi can’t resist calling attention to the fact that there’s crows here, and they symbolize death, buddy.
OK, so what’s wrong with that? Cut Mr. Raimi some slack — he’s recognized by cultists and scholars alike as the godfather of splatter comedy, and we oughta expect his take on human nature to be gothic, if not downright Grand Guignol. He’s hardly alone in wanting to make the leap from The Evil Dead to “respectable” filmmaking, either. Kiwi auteur Peter Jackson abandoned the low-budget, high-energy splatter comedies that were his forte, and wound up pulling Heavenly Creatures out of his hat — one of the most astonishingly good films of the last decade. (In fact, as I write these words, canny horror filmmaker Wes Craven has parlayed the success of the Scream franchise into a gig directing Meryl Streep — Meryl Streep! — in the upcoming 50 Violins.)
It’s almost surprising that someone, somewhere along the line, had the insight to hand this particular project to Raimi. Scott Smith’s novel is a careful tale that introduces us to a triangle of three friends — two of them brothers — who abrogate moral responsibility when confronted by a big, unclaimed pile of cash, and then shows how the nastier bits of their character come to the fore as a careful cover-up begins to go disastrously awry. That’s not such a long stretch from the original Evil Dead movie, which may have lacked this film’s moral dimension, but got the bits about transformations and forced betrayals of friendship just right. Having tried his hand at the superhero flick (Darkman) and the postmodern western (The Quick and the Dead), Raimi abandons conventional genre filmmaking altogether and comes up mostly a winner.
That’s not to say I’m a complete convert, or that A Simple Plan moved me near as much as Heavenly Creatures. When I watched Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, I couldn’t help but note that his directorial sensibilities seem largely informed by the Three Stooges, and too much of A Simple Plan is less delicate and more protracted than the material demands. I was frustrated by critical scenes that just didn’t work in terms of screen time and geography. For example, there’s a bit of business toward the end of the movie having to do with a purloined handgun and a fistful of bullets. It works fine in the context of the story, but Raimi misses beats in two different scenes as his actor fumbles, twice, with a handful of bullets. It’s tempting to suggest that a more careful edit may have shored things up, but there are edits, particularly within long conversations, that already seem to have been shuffled around a little. I don’t mean to complain too much, because when the film works, it clearly works.
Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Brent Briscoe play the unlucky lucky trio, who stumble across a downed plane after swerving and crashing their pickup to avoid a mischievous fox trotting across the wintry landscape. The plane contains one very dead pilot and a sack full of money. Hank (Paxton), the college-educated accountant who nonetheless works a dead-end storefront job, invites stares of disbelief when he ventures, “It’s a police matter, now.” Lou (Briscoe) is adamant that it won’t be a police matter, that if the three of them steal away with the money and keep their mouths shut, they’re privy to a windfall. Against his better judgment, Hank lets himself be convinced. At home, he spills the beans immediately to wife Bridget Fonda, who proves to be a more natural schemer than any of the men. She immediately hatches more cover-up plans, and becomes attached to the notion of a better life. The weak link in the plan seems to be Hank’s brother Jacob (Thornton), a likable oaf with uncharacteristic moments of utter clarity who’s torn when it comes time to choose his loyalties.
It wouldn’t be much of a movie if things didn’t go wrong, and they do. A lapse in moral rectitude leads to slips of the tongue, errors in judgment, and seeds of distrust and resentment that spread through the plotline like a virus. Appearing on the talk show circuit, Thornton was heard touting the movie as, more or less, the feel-bad hit of the holiday season, which gets at the film’s sorrowful essence. Actually, it’s remarkable how closely this story dovetails with the equally black but far inferior Very Bad Things. This movie is both funnier and more serious, and manages to make its points about bad behavior without debasing the humanity of its characters (cf Very Bad Things) or pointing at them and laughing (cf Fargo).
Author/screenwriter Smith clearly has a novelist’s sense for character and irony. What he lacks is an ace screenwriter’s ear for the spoken word. For every moment that feels absolutely true, there are a few stilted lines of conversation, or an unconvincing monologue. Even so, Smith’s script is so good that it brings out the best in everyone assembled. As fine as Thornton’s performance is, it’s borne from equally terrific raw material. Thornton’s triumph is to bring Smith’s character to suitably convincing life.
As the college boy of the piece, Paxton still exudes the low-key working class charisma that made him a James Cameron favorite. In his own unremarkable way, he’s beyond reproach. Briscoe gets the role that’s neither as showy as Thornton’s nor as sympathetic as Paxton’s, and plays it flawlessly. Fonda remains, for me, an immensely appealing screen presence but, sadly, not much of a performer.
Onto this amiable, almost stately ensemble, the movie imposes a very literary fatalism, signalled by empty, snowy landscapes, animal symbolism, and one showy, bloody explosion of violence. Contrivance nips at the story’s heels, and those who find “predictability” a major story flaw may be disappointed by the inexorably downward trajectory. But the events of the film are underscored by intricate characterization, which hammers home one of the first lessons of film school: if the people up on the screen ring true, it’s hard not to become emotionally invested in their story. In short, it works because the movie has drawn us in and made us feel in our bones how much it would mean to those characters to have that cash. If the moral is a humdrum “money can’t buy happiness,” A Simple Plan gets singular credit for demonstrating the thesis forcefully and convincingly.
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Scott B. Smith, based on his novel
Cinematography by Alar Kivilo
Edited by Arthur Coburn and Eric L. Beason
Music by Danny Elfman
Starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Brent Briscoe, and Bridget Fonda
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1