A Simple Plan

Sam Raimi is a director who always makes interesting, though sometimes uneven, movies. His Evil Dead series made a household name of B-actor Bruce Campbell and encouraged thousands of aspiring filmmakers to pick up a camera, grab a bunch of friends and create their own horror movie in the woods (Blair Witch Project, anyone?). The third film of the series, Army of Darkness, also inspired Duke Nukem’s best lines – “Come get some” and “Hail to the King, Baby.” While mostly known for his fantastic horror films, Raimi has had a few missteps along the way (The Quick and The Dead, Spider-Man 3), but his 1998 thriller A Simple Plan isn’t one of them.

Based on a 1994 novel by Scott B. Smith (who also wrote the screenplay for the film – always a good sign) the story asks a common dinner table question: If you found a large sum of money, would you keep it? Hank (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) are faced with this decision when they discover a crashed airplane with $4 million in a duffel bag. Hank, the college-educated brother and the smartest of the three, immediately wants to report the money to the police. But then Lou reasons that the money was probably a criminal’s – maybe a drug dealer – and that if they keep it, they wouldn’t be hurting anybody. If they contact the police though, they won’t see a cent. It would be a shame to let that money go to waste.

The three men come up with a simple plan: they’ll stash the money for a year, just until the plane is discovered by the police. If it turns out that someone is looking for the money, they’ll burn it. If no one’s looking for it, in a year they’ll each be about $1.5 million richer. Of course, things don’t go according to plan.

The most interesting part of the movie is the dichotomy between Jacob and Hank. They are brothers, but as Jacob says at one point in the movie, all they have in common is their last names. Hank is college-educated, has a steady job, a loving wife (Bridget Fonda), and a baby on the way. Jacob is unemployed, unattractive, a heavy drinker, and not exactly bright. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the film (ignoring the bloodshed) is that Jacob is smart enough to know that he’s dumb. Hank’s college background has given him a sense of superiority over his brother and others (Lou scoffs at the big words he uses around them – “insinuating” is the one that frustrates him) even though he doesn’t make the smartest decisions either. Where Jacob knows he’s dumb, Hank cannot believe or even admit that he might be too.

This is arguably Billy Bob Thornton’s strongest performance. He plays against type (he’s gentle and shy in the film, rather than the brash and domineering persona he is often cast as) and he disappears into the role behind a pair of yellowing teeth and taped glasses. Jacob is a character who feels, rather than thinks, and I found myself to be more sympathetic to his character than to Hank – who is the character who thinks, and sometimes neglects (or forgets) to feel. One telling scene occurs early on when Hank and Jacob visit their father’s grave. Hank is surprised to realize that someone else has put flowers on the grave. Jacob shakes his head and says: “This isn’t the only day we’re allowed to come here, y’know.” The look on Hank’s face is one of recognizing a simple truth that he hadn’t even thought about. He can come to his father’s grave whenever he wants, but he doesn’t. Jacob does.

The film is built like a game of dominoes – each preceding event directly causes the event following it – making attempts to discuss the plot lengthy and long-winded. See this movie, if you haven’t. It’s a perfect thriller with interesting characters and a breadth of opportunities for spurring discussion afterwards (does Bridget Fonda’s character become like Lady MacBeth? Is Hank really “smart,” and what does that mean anyway? What’s the significance of the final shot?).

Nothing’s simple.

Grade: A

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One Response to A Simple Plan

  1. Dave says:

    This is a fantastic film. I agree completely about Billy Bob; yeah, he was great in Sling Blade, but this was his crowning achievement as an actor, I think. Nice write up, made me wanna go see it again! Definitely one of the very best films of that year!

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