A Simple Plan (1998)

Starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Brisco, and Chelcie Ross.
A Simple PlanWritten by Scott B. Smith based on his novel.
Directed by Sam Raimi.

Grade: B+

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

It's simple, really: the success of A Simple Plan depends on whether or not the audience is able to identify with the main character, Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton). Hank, his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's friend Lou (Brent Brisco) discover $4.4 million dollars in a crashed plane. Instead of turning the money into the police, they agree to keep quiet, and if nobody comes looking for it, they will split the money among themselves. Writer Scott B. Smith asks us to believe that the opportunity for easy money would lead even an intelligent, educated family man like Hank Mitchell to do some exceedingly bad things. Despite Paxton's outstanding performance and Sam Raimi's intelligent direction, it's difficult to make this logical leap.

For one thing, Hank Mitchell is well aware that his brother is a dimwit and Lou is a drunken imbecile. Incredibly, Hank allows Jacob and Lou talk him into keeping the cash. Obviously Jacob and Lou are going to screw up the plan somehow, and obviously somebody is going to come looking for the money regardless of where it came from. To paraphrase a friend, A Simple Plan is not really a movie about a simple plan that turns out to be a terrible idea; it's a movie about a terrible idea that turns out to be a terrible idea.

Even if you accept the premise, Hank Mitchell then makes a reprehensible choice barely 30 minutes into the movie. Hank, the man who argued that the money should be turned into the authorities! Hank's transformation from upstanding citizen to dangerous felon is too abrupt. For the audience to sympathize with Hank, Smith needed to show how the money gradually seduces him and how circumstances slowly push him to desperate measures.

This fundamental problem with the story's credibility prevents A Simple Plan from being a great movie. However, it is still very good, and well worth seeing. The acting and the direction stand out in particular. The actors, with one exception, mesh flawlessly with Sam Raimi's small town atmosphere and melancholy winter landscapes. As slow witted Jacob, one might have expected Billy Bob Thornton to deliver an over-the-top performance as he's done in some other movies. Instead, he creates a multidimensional character worthy of pity. Bill Paxton is also superb--this is a breakthrough performance for him, as most of his previous roles (Titanic, Twister) were not particularly challenging. Bridget Fonda is the only actor who seems a bit out of place--it's difficult to believe her as a pregnant housewife. Yet she too has a noteworthy scene late in the movie when she explains to Hank Mitchell why they should keep the money. It's a chilling speech, and Fonda's moment to shine.

Despite the fine acting, most praise should go to Sam Raimi. He has always had a good eye, but with A Simple Plan he applies his talent to achieve markedly different results. All of his previous films have been cartoonish action/horror movies with comedic touches--the Evil Dead movies, for example, Darkman, Army of Darkness, and the spaghetti Western spoof The Quick and the Dead. His restrained, subtle direction here is a revelation. It suits the story perfectly. It's a shame, really, that the plot has a glaring weakness. A Simple Plan should have been one of the very best films of 1998.

Review © March 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Image © 1998 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

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