Nothing Simple About This "Plan"

What would you do if you found millions of dollars in cash? Would you keep it? That's the question posed by Hank Mitchell. Of course not, says his wife Sarah. That would be stealing. After Hank shows her the money, she says that it would be wrong because the law says so. As the night goes on, she tells him to return a portion of the cash so no one will suspect any wrongdoing. They'll keep the rest. It's a beautifully-crafted scene that chronicles one family's descent from individual morality to fear of the law to naked greed. There's nothing simple about A Simple Plan. It's a complex character study of how far people will go and how easily the unthinkable comes in pursuit of the American dream. Having made his name in the Evil Dead horror movies, director Sam Raimi this time finds darkness in a different place in this fine film noir.

The film owes much to Scott Smith's screenplay, adapted from his own novel. He's a master at chronicling humanity's heart of darkness. In noirs like The Big Sleep, people get swept up in byzantine plots. In this film, the plot is just a catalyst. Things spin out of control in the clash of wholly human vanities and insecurities, keenly observed by Smith. These things render the characters flesh and blood and ultimately lead to their downfall.

At first it seems they're going to succeed. Protagonist Hank (Bill Paxton, cast against type as a non-yokel) seems to have it all, with a steady job as a feed-store manager in his rural Minnesota town, a comfortable house and a baby on the way with librarian wife Sarah, a frumpy femme fatale played by Bridget Fonda. It's the good life, especially compared to Hank's dimwitted older brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), who shuffles around in tape-bound glasses with his belligerent best friend Lou. It's Lou's beer-fueled, snowball-throwing resentment of Hank's vocabulary that leads them to find a snow-covered plane in the woods with four million and a dead pilot inside. Hank wants to alert the authorities but Jacob and Lou, both unemployed, change his mind when they agree to his plan to keep the money until it's safe to divide it. Hank's so confident he can resist temptation that he believes in his plan. But in a matter of hours he's plotting with an eager Sarah and a reluctant Jacob.

Slow-minded Jacob's an unlikely choice as the film's moral centre, since he initially sees the money as a chance to end years of loneliness and rejection. Billy Bob Thornton is riveting as Jacob, who attains a state of grace amid greater and greater chaos. His simple wish for a family is echoed by the others' ordinary desires for the American dream, a truck, a house, a happy family. That makes this film close to the earlier Jack Palance noir I Died A Thousand Times (the superior remake of the even earlier noir High Sierra). Like Palance's bank robber, Hank, Sarah, Jacob and Lou find out the American dream comes with a price.

Both films take place in rural snowscapes. Director Raimi uses the austere colour palette and desolate winter landscapes to heighten the noir feel. But when it comes to nature playing a role in noir, Plan falters. Scenes of a fox raiding a henhouse and crows scavenging among the dead are too obvious to work as effective foreshadowing. But when Raimi and Smith lay bare how ordinary people with ordinary dreams can do extraordinary things, they impress in this powerful reminder that the best-laid plans can go astray.

(November 29, 2001)

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