After the cartoonish sadism of his Evil Dead trilogy and the deranged superheroics of Darkman, it looked like Sam Raimi was starting to mature after the more focused (but still pretty weird) western, The Quick And The Dead. His next film after becoming a director for hire was an adaptation of Scott Smith’s unsettlingly quiet novel, A Simple Plan and while I was pleased Raimi was still plying his craft while adding more strings to his bow, I couldn’t help but feel a little whimsical that one of my favorite directors seemingly had all grown up without a popped eyeball or a crash zoom to be seen.
Well, it seems I should have been the one to grow up, because this wintery look at human greed ended up being a well crafted classic that could stand shoulder to shoulder with that other, quietly malevolent, snow dusted thriller, Fargo – something that’s mischievously ironic when you consider Raimi’s background.
In rural Minnesota, Hank Mitchell enjoys the simple life with his pregnant wife, Sarah and a decent job as the bookkeeper at the local feed mill, but while he’s one of the town’s rare college graduates, his older brother Jacob has learning difficulties.
While on the way back from visiting their their parent’s grave (with Jacob’s slobbish friend Lou in tow), a near miss with a fox causes Jacob to crash his truck and subsequently the trio find a crashed plane covered in snow and a quick search reveals not only the crow-pecked pilot, but a bag loaded with £4.4 million dollars. Immediately a debate starts between Hank and Lou about what to do with the cash and about whether they keep it or turn it in to the cops and eventually they agree to sit on the cash until the snow thaws and if the ane is discovered and there’s no mention of the money, they’ll split it.
Immediately there’s problems; both Jacob and Lou are hardly rocket scientists and they nearly spill the beans when trying to create an unnecessary cover story with the local chief of police, while Hank breaks his own rules and tells Sarah the minute he gets home. However, matters get fucked when a panicking Jacob seemingly causes the death of a farmer in order to stop him discovering the plane which leads to Hank having to clear up after him in the most horrible way.
As time goes by, the tension, greed and paranoia between the players steadily mount; Hank and Lou try to win Jacob over to their way of thinking through peer pressure and blackmail while Sarah proves to be more manipulative than her husband could have ever imagined and these so called “good people” slip even further into the dark while trying to protect their cut. Soon everyone’s turning on each other and somehow matters get even worse when a man claiming to be a federal agent shows up looking for the plane making this so-called simple plan more complicated by the moment.
Comparing A Simple Plan to Fargo carries with it a wonderful sense of closure that goes way beyond the similarities in plot and weather – Joel Coen got an early job editing parts of Raimi’s debut The Evil Dead while the director helped co-write the brother’s The Hudsucker Proxy – and the two really do feel like a natural double bill of double crosses and murder involving small town folk resorting to desperate measures with nasty results.
As he strips away his whirling camera work and broad slapstick, Raimi proves himself not only a shrewd storyteller but an adept handler of actors – when not constantly attacking them with bile spewing monsters or throwing them down stairs, that is – and as a result turns in a tale that’s malevolently subdued as the cast endlessly plot and counter-plot against each other until disaster strikes over and over again.
Bill Paxton, usually deployed as a sniveling douchebag or a swaggering redneck, gets to show off his leading man skills as the middleman in this whole mess far better than he got to do in Twister and he nicely plays against type as this pillar of the community who’s morals gradually melt like the retreating snow. Watch his air of hypocritical superiority get broken down progressively during the times when reality rudely sneaks up on him when he finds out that his father lost the farm to pay for his college tuition and that he most likely took his own life. However, as admirably straight laced as Paxton is, Billy Bob Thornton’s chameleonic performance as brother Jacob is something else altogether as he shuffles about, peering at everyone from behind a shaggy wig, jug-ears and a set of keyboard dentures. Utterly overlooked by the world at large – not to mention his own brother – the seemingly simple, older sibling is caught between his friend and his brother in a tug of war, but with every clumsy mistake he makes due to his limited IQ, he also manages to display occasionally startling examples of shifty resourcefulness such as a standout scene where he cons Lou into confessing on tape. “Do you even feel evil?” he asked his brother when the weight of all they’ve done starts to get too much and the bonding the brother’s finally have due to the theft tragically only goes prove how different they really are. Finally, we come to Bridget Fonda’s Sarah, who’s slow transformation from content pregnant wife to a measured, hardened, criminal mastermind is quite the slow burn to behold as the paranoia molds everyone into distrustful wrecks and reveals exactly what they genuinely think about their simple lives now that they have a chance of a way out.
The film looks gorgeous, with the wintery backdrops giving a pristine sheen while the darkness bubbles under the surface and Raimi even has the neat image of using jet black crows to act like sinister harbingers of woe as the impassively watch events play out and it all adds to the nail gnawing tension when the climatic events bring the identity of Gary Cole’s FBI agent into question.
Who will survive and how much will they get away with is the question of the day for this twisty, character piece that really doesn’t get the love that it really should as all concerned strive hard to show us sides to their talents we don’t normally see, but from it’s atmosphere start to it’s tragic finale, A Simple Plan proves to be a complicated treasure.