Movie Review – A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan (1998)
Written by Scott B. Smith
Directed by Sam Raimi

The 1990s were an eclectic decade for Sam Raimi. Darkman was his entry into the 90s, which helped to get his third Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness, greenlit through Universal Pictures. That was followed a few years later by the western The Quick and The Dead. Then came A Simple Plan (He would wrap up the decade with the Kevin Costner baseball movie For Love of the Game, so he wasn’t sticking to a single genre). 

Raimi had always had a reciprocal relationship with his fellow filmmakers, the Coens, with the brothers having done some writing for him on Crimewave and Raimi even writing the script for The Hudsucker Proxy. So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that A Simple Plan would be so close to that rural noir the Coens made popular with Fargo. Raimi is enough of a student of American film that he isn’t just going to make a carbon copy but bring in other influences, particularly John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The result is a very dark picture of greed that needs to be brought up more in conversations about great movies of the 1990s.

Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) follows the rules. He’s a bookkeeper at the feed mill in his rural Minnesota hometown and has a wife, Sarah, the town librarian (Bridget Fonda), who is pregnant. On the flip side, Hank’s older brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) is not like Hank. He has some learning disabilities and prefers to spend his days drinking and puttering around with his buddy Lou. One morning, while Hank and these two are out in the woods, they come across a small plane that has crashed. The pilot is dead, and there’s a duffel bag containing $4.4 million in cash. 

Hank steps in as the voice of reason and says he will hold the money until the spring to see if the authorities are searching for it. Only then can it be divided between the three men. Jacob and Lou begrudgingly go along, but it doesn’t take long for cracks to form. Sarah reveals a darker side, encouraging Hank to pit Jacob against Lou as the latter demands a fraction of the money or he’s telling the police. Eventually, they learn that the money was the ransom for a kidnapping, and the kidnappers want their reward.

I came into this movie expecting certain things and found it definitely challenged those expectations. I thought Thornton was leading the picture, but this is Paxton’s film. That doesn’t mean Thornton doesn’t pull his weight; the emotional connection between him and Paxton’s characters is the vehicle that drives the plot forward. I kept thinking that Jacob was playing up his simple-mindedness to slip under the radar, and that’s not where the picture goes. Where we end up is much more devastating and reflects the themes of greed & cruelty that are woven throughout the story. Hank goes through a dark transformation, allowing himself to do things he wouldn’t have dreamed of before the money was discovered.

There’s a particularly gruesome & chilling sequence at Lou’s house which showcases how dark the situation has become. Raimi could easily have thrown his particular visual flourishes in as tension grows. Think of Darkman’s hilariously wild carnival sequence or anything from Army of Darkness. However, the director restrains himself; he lets the performances be the centerpiece. It’s very similar in tone to his other noir film a few years later, The Gift. They are both about people in over their heads, dealing with a situation that is growing increasingly more twisted & violent. 

Where A Simple Plan exceeds its first two acts is in its devastating third. Thornton & Paxton’s performances and the script deliver something truly heart-wrenching, a reflection of the rot in the souls of these men. I’m reasonably sure this movie got greenlit because of Fargo’s acclaim and box office, but that is not a fair comparison. Fargo is a mix of noir & comedy, and there’s not much to laugh about here.

Thornton’s Jacob comes to a conclusion that shows he was one of the only characters in the picture to maintain his morality despite being pushed to become more cunning. He makes a decision that reflects his inability to keep being an evil person, and we see how this destroys Hank as he finally can understand what he has become as well. I won’t say more because part of the magic of this movie is letting it unfold for you, but it should be something that gets brought up more often, especially in conversations about contemporary American noir. It hits all the expected genre tropes but surprises with some new elements.


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