A Simple Plan (1998)

26 Jan

Simple Plan

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The title of the thriller “A Simple Plan” represents a form of irony. There is no simple plan. Every time the characters think they’re following a “simple plan,” things just get more complicated and difficult as they go along. The plan ends with disastrous results. Nothing is simple in this movie.

The film takes place in the winter in a small, rural Midwestern town. The protagonist Hank (Bill Paxton) is a nice, bright man living a happy life with his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda). He has everything he believes a happy man should have, which he states in an opening narration—a lovely wife, a decent job, and people who like and respect him. Then one day, something happens that changes his life. As he, his mentally-slow brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their rowdy, drunk friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble through the woods, they come across the wreckage of a crashed plane, where they find a duffel bag filled with money—millions of dollars in cash.

Amazed by this discovery, the trio is split about what to do with it. Hank wants to do the reasonably smart thing and turn it in to the authorities to let them handle this. Lou believes that nobody has to know and that they should all keep the money. Jacob has no opinion—he’ll just go along with whatever his brother and friend agree on. Lou acts as the devil on Hank’s back—“It’s the American Dream in a gym bag and you wanna walk away from it.” Hank tries to counter by saying, “You work for the American Dream. You don’t steal it.” Lou and Jacob think that since the money probably belonged to some drug dealers, then it’s no problem if they keep the bundle for themselves.

Reluctantly, Hank agrees to hide the money until they’re sure no one’s looking for it or the plane. Then they’ll all split it. In the meantime, Hank keeps the money in his house and lets his wife in on the secretive “simple plan.” Sarah becomes Hank’s silent partner in keeping the money hidden and making sure that no suspicion is present.

This seems like a relatively harmless and, for lack of a better word, simple plan. Hank is undoubtedly the most responsible in the group and as long as Jacob and Lou keep it a secret (and they will, if they want to keep the money), nothing should go wrong. But Sarah suggests that Hank return $500,000 to the plane, so that whoever’s looking for the money won’t be suspicious if they find the plane. OK, a little roadblock. Easily fixable, right?

Wrong. Everything you think can go wrong with this plan goes wrong from that point on. There are consequences, mistrusts, further complications, and the whole situation just becomes a disaster that Hank has to face. Oh, and just when you think everything is finally going to go right, they still have a way of turning around. The money is still around and it will always be a problem. Hank’s right—“You don’t steal the American Dream,” no matter how easy it may seem at this moment.

“A Simple Plan” is an ingenious thriller that plays with tension and storytelling. The screenplay was written by Scott Smith, based on his novel, and it’s brilliantly written in the way it handles this bizarre situation and its further implications. The director was Sam Raimi, who wonderfully portrays the small-town life in the surface of the growing tension between the characters. He keeps the suspense alive. He also uses a snowy backdrop for a chilling atmosphere, much like how the Coen Brothers handled their environment in “Fargo.” (Incidentally, Raimi asked the Coens for advice in filming in this weather.)

“A Simple Plan” faces its moral implications head-on. In order to keep the plan a secret, a character has to do something horrible to help it remain a secret. And then, the characters are forced with the crisis of what they’re going to do, and their decisions bring additional complications for them to handle. The characters deal with it, they talk about it, they have discussions, etc. And we, as an audience, are involved and brought along to follow the story, wondering how they’re going to get out of this.

The performances are flawless. Bill Paxton brings an everyman quality to the role of Hank, and he’s easily identifiable. This is why when paranoia and deception sometimes takes over in his mind to the result of a horrible deed, we feel sorry for him. We’re hoping that things will turn out okay for him. Brent Briscoe is suitably slimy as Lou, who winds up demanding his share of the money soon enough. Bridget Fonda is ultimately solid as a woman who starts to take charge of the situation for the good of her husband.

But in an ensemble cast of flawless performances, one that will undoubtedly catch the most attention is Billy Bob Thornton as Hank’s dim-witted but good-natured brother Jacob. Thornton is absolutely perfect in this film. Playing Jacob by walking a fine line between gentle and psychotic, Thornton delivers a striking portrayal of a slow-minded man who learns to think faster than he has before, and actually has his moments of revelation as well—probably more than what can be said for the other characters who attempt to go on with this secret. Thornton is always appealing in this role, and sometimes even quite haunting.

“A Simple Plan” is a superb thriller with greatly effective storytelling and great acting. It’s an involving story from beginning to end—suspenseful, tense, stylistic, complex, and plausible. And just remember—if you think you can get away with something like thievery, just remember to think about what you’re getting yourself into. There is no simple plan.

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