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PopGap #29: A Simple Plan (1998)
When Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan was released on DVD, I reviewed it for a then-popular home video website. That was over 15 years ago, and my only recollection, now, is that I thought it wanted very badly to replicate the superficial hallmarks of the Coen Brothers' great snowy crime thriller Fargo, but did so rather stupidly. I didn't re-read my old review before taking another look at A Simple Plan this month. I suspected I might react more warmly this time around. After all, Raimi is a director known for his comically dark style and peculiar wit, and surely those assets are a perfect fit for a story about people killing each other over a bag of money found in the woods. However, this second viewing has only confirmed my original review, and cemented it.
Based on the novel by Scott B. Smith, A Simple Plan stars Bill Paxton as Hank Mitchell, whose life in rural Minnesota seems to fit the wholesome ideals often associated with small-town America: honest work; a wife (Bridget Fonda) expecting their first child; and a modest, cozy home in which to celebrate the imminent winter holidays. However, all of that changes in an instant when Hank, his unsteady brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's ornery friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), stumble upon the wreck of a small plane within a secluded wildlife preserve. Inside the plane, they discover a duffel bag containing over four million dollars. Despite Hank's initial impulse to alert the police and turn over the money, the three men hatch a plan to sit on the money until spring to see if anyone claims it.
There is a fair amount of tension in A Simple Plan, but it is all of a single variety: what head-smackingly stupid thing will one of the characters do next, and how can it possibly be stupider than what happened before it? Where Fargo was elegant and rich in subtext, making a pointed contrast between the clashing worldviews of Sheriff Marge Gunderson and the criminals she pursues — and highlighting the exponential folly of criminal desperation — A Simple Plan is the kind of remedial, dot-to-dot movie in which every character says what he or she (or the author) is thinking, and then proceeds to make one aggravating blunder after another. With only self-inflicted wounds on display, it's an absurdly miserable movie to watch, like the sight of someone repeatedly running over themselves in a car: how it keeps happening is as mystifying as why.
I suppose my fundamental problem with A Simple Plan is that I don't share Smith's cynical attitude toward people, who he seems to think are Gollum-like greed monsters fundamentally incapable of executing impulse control (this may be unfair to Gollum, who acquits himself in pursuit of his precious far better than anyone in this mess). Smith and Raimi set up a false dichotomy at the outset, pitting the college educated Hank against Jacob and Lou, hayseeds who resent Hank's use of big words and presumed sophistication; but, for Smith's story to work, Hank immediately discards his pretense of greater thoughtfulness to protect his unearned treasure from the cascading avalanche of bad decisions that it provokes. Hank, see, is no different than his uncouth hillbilly peers; in Smith's world, a citified man like Hank doesn't act on his animalistic urges until five minutes have passed. Maybe this is Smith's way of avoiding the typical anti-rural bias in popular culture, asserting that everyone is equally evil, no matter their influences; or, maybe, he's doubling down on it, using Hank as damning proof that, no matter how much book learning you give them, you just can't civilize a rube.
Maybe I could've bought into Smith's relentless pessimism if he and Raimi had made a better case for it, but A Simple Plan fails so completely in terms of narrative, characters and production quality, that there's an overwhelming sense that no one bothered trying. From the opening titles, with their made-for-TV typography alongside Danny Elfman's most generic and practically simpering score, A Simple Plan is mired in the barest forms of mediocrity. It's easily Raimi's most stylistically prosaic movie, lacking in visual energy and only eking drab rather than stark darkness out of its many cold nights. From a screenwriting standpoint, it's even worse. Characters shift suddenly for dramatic purpose, with no context and only the most simplistic motivations to illuminate their aggravating swings from complete normalcy to utter deviancy. As likeable as Paxton is, and as great as Thornton can be, A Simple Plan stacks everything against its actors. Paxton is forced into delivering a completely redundant narration that reveals the deep ethical insights of a second grader; Thornton, who is clearly too smart for his nonsensical character, roller-coasts from low-IQ dunce to poet king with no rhyme or reason, and his character, in a bizarre subversion of the tragic logic of Of Mice and Men, concocts one of the most preposterously overwrought plot turns imaginable. Even a great movie would be soiled beyond repair by such an inexplicable event; A Simple Plan is already in the ballpark, but still swings for the fence.
The usually dependable Gary Cole, Chelcie Ross and Becky Ann Baker have thankless roles as cannon-fodder for Smith's constant blasts of knee-jerk misanthropy. It's a nearly worthless movie.
A Simple Plan was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Ty Tag, who can be found on Flickchart under the username goat6boy. He ranks it on his chart at #968 / 2798 (65%), where it's ranked as his 49th favorite crime thriller out of 113. A Simple Plan ranked on my Flickchart at #3324 (14%), putting it at #171 out of 190 Crime Thrillers.
My Top 5 Crime Thrillers
Notes on A Simple Plan (1998)
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