movie review by
David Ng

A Simple Plan


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Blood and snow haven't looked this good together since Steve Buscemi's body was sprinkled across the frozen Minnesota countryside in Fargo. In A Simple Plan, blood plays a crucial part. A cut above the eyebrow. A laceration across the cheek. A bullethole through the head. Its unmistakable presence against the virgin snow evokes a starkness that has long been absent from film violence. The snow itself is a reducing agent. Its purity distills hotheaded aggression into the spillage of precious fluid. Humans are complicated, director Sam Raimi seems to say, but their actions are as simple as red and white.

A Simple Plan is a distant cousin of those Hitchcock thrillers in which everyman heroes turn out to be the films' true villains. Hank, played by Bill Paxton, is a small-town family man. College-educated, he rests a cut above his corn-pone neighbors and has the two-story house and pregnant-but-happy wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), to prove it. When Hank, his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and his brother's white-trash friend, Lou, uncover a duffel bag of $4.4 million from a crashed airplane, Hank's Norman Rockwell shell begins to crumble.

The three of them confront each other over the duffel bag. Hank tries to convince the others to turn the money into the police. "You're supposed to earn the American dream, not steal it," Hank argues. But Jacob and Lou want to keep it. No one's looking for it, they say. It's probably drug money presumed gone forever by its owners. No one will get hurt. And who will ever find out the truth?

Soon, Hank is pouring the cash on his kitchen table, to the delight of his wife. But complications arise. Sarah tells Hank that he has to return some of the money to the airplane. That way, she says, when the police find the plane, they won't suspect that any money has been stolen. Hank shakes his head. Sarah urges on: he has to do it before dawn so that the new snow will cover his tracks. Hank agrees and unwittingly sets off an irreversible chain of tragedy.

A Simple Plan conceives its characters as Elizabethan plotters. When we first meet Sarah, she is wearing a red bathrobe. From her plush home, she engineers much of the film's action with a quiet urgency, like a Shakespearean temptress who whispers eloquently to her weaker husband and who propagates her sinisterism down the chain of command. Though Sarah doesn't commit any of the film's gruesome deeds, she is its coldest creation. While breast feeding her newborn daughter, she persuades Hank to trick Lou into confessing to a murder. Buy a tape recorder, she whispers, so you can secretly record the confession and turn it into the police.

The complex and the simple also intersect each other in the character of Jacob. Billy Bob Thornton, who has perfected the semi-retarded hick, smartly plays Jacob less as a simpleton and more as a simple man. Jacob may use beer cans as Christmas tree ornaments, but he is more instinctual than his smarter brother. He answers his gut. When Hank enlists Jacob in a series of elaborate cover-ups, Jacobís face displays a telling mix of disgust and despair.

As a thriller, A Simple Plan is a full-bodied athlete of a film. Its characters, all of them clawing for something beyond their reach, give the film its muscle mass. They are not the flimsy creations who customarily prop up thrillers. They add heft, distinguishing A Simple Plan in a genre replete with lightweights. A Simple Plan is also agile, like a runner. It makes its requisite plot twists without losing its balance. There is economy in the way director Sam Raimi pieces things together. Not a scene or character is discarded without first wringing it for every last calorie of energy. It is, as a result, an efficient thriller, substantial and swift at the same time.

If A Simple Plan's plot sounds like a cliche, and its duffel bag of money smacks of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, then Raimi deserves credit for making leftovers go down smoothly. Watch closely the mise-en-scene of the forest scenes. Raimi moves the humans to the periphery and in the center of the screen he places wild crows. The crows peck and scratch at each other; they squabble noisily. Positioning them so prominently, Raimi creates organic tension that flows naturally from the scene. In fact, A Simple Plan is filled with animals -- crows, a wild fox, pheasant, horses, and dogs. Their presence testifies to a savagery that lies in all humans -- a savagery that bursts forth when our carefully constructed plans disintegrate under their own complexity.

A Simple Plan belongs to the personal-nightmare sub-genre that documents the everyman's descent into a hell of his own innocent creation. As Hank, Bill Paxton projects rural intelligence. He's smart, but not smart enough to see the simplest way out. His nightmare tunnels deep, darkening the film with every turn. This vision of a personal hell goes uncompromised until the very end when Raimi and screenwriter Scott B. Smith pinch Hank (and the audience), waking us up, rescuing us from eternal damnation. It's a wimpy conclusion. Restoring Hank to a kind of peace, it slams the break on the film's diabolical momentum.

Were the filmmakers scared of their creation? Did they flinch at the Devil they ultimately found in Hank? In his classic thriller Les Diaboliques, director Henri-Georges Clouzot perpetuates the nightmare well beyond the final credits. His characters find themselves caught in a hellish kaleidoscope. There is no end. The horrific possibilities can tessellate endlessly. Raimi and Smith, on the other hand, halt A Simple Plan's permutations at an unnatural point. After building an unconventional, robust and simple thriller, they allow their hellbound creation to stall inches from Satan's doorstep.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]