Review: Surprising complexity to 'A Simple Plan'
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From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- The name Sam Raimi might well ring a bell for you if you're a committed movie aficionado. But even then there's a good chance that you won't be able to place it if your tastes don't lean towards bloody, sardonic horror movies. The mastermind behind the wild, hallucinatory cult films, "Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead II" (and an occasional writing partner of the Coen brothers), Raimi, a director of huge technical abilities, has been openly attempting to nudge his way into the commercial mainstream in recent years.
That process started out with the well-executed, but ultimately rather mundane "Darkman." Raimi stumbled badly, though, in 1995, with a nearly ridiculous Western called "The Quick and the Dead." (Sharon Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio played gunslingers. Which, come to think of it, is nearly as hallucinatory as that cadaver dancing around with its own head in its hands in "Evil Dead.")
Now, he brings us what will almost certainly become his highest-grossing and best-received film to date, a "Blood Simple"-like exercise in paranoia and bad luck called "A Simple Plan." Not everything about the movie works as well as it could have (the script often twists uncomfortably to set up its dramatic situations), but Raimi, at long last, is now an A-list director. "A-list," in case you're wondering, is Hollywood-speak for "talented at moneymaking."
New tactics pay off
Raimi has dropped his outlandish camera histrionics this time around for a more pensive, though no less successful, visual scheme. That frees up his actors, for just about the first time in his career, to be the full center of attention, and it pays off beautifully with a couple of exciting performances.
Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton star as Hank and Jacob, two Midwestern brothers who, while walking through the woods with Jacob's dimwitted friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), stumble upon a crashed airplane. These guys live in the middle of a snow-covered nowhere, and -- outside of Hank, who's got a wife, a baby on the way, and a decent job -- they don't have anything to look forward to. So the plane wreck is a major event in their humdrum lives.
Those lives quickly become anything but humdrum when they enter the wreckage to find a dead pilot and a suitcase containing $4.4 million worth of $100 bills! At first, Hank is insistent on calling the cops and returning the cash, but Jacob (who may or may not be marginally retarded) and Lou talk him into keeping the dough. They all suspect it's drug money, anyway, so they wouldn't really be hurting anyone by keeping it. Or, at least, that's what they tell themselves.
Hank, who rightfully doesn't trust his simpleton partners, will only take this route if he's allowed to hold onto the money until the snow thaws out and the authorities find the plane. Then, when the coast is completely clear, they'll divvy it up and move out of town.
Thriller with a twist
Now the movie turns into a thriller, but with a twist. What's really so horrifying is the idea that Hank, who has a lot to live for, has his life suspended by a thread that can be cut by either Lou or Jacob. They're both more than capable of drunken outbursts, and neither one is really playing with a full deck, so the situation is even more tenuous than common sense would tell you it is.
Soon, the three men are taking sides against each other in a variety of surprising ways. And, once the authorities start asking questions about a plane wreck, panic starts to set in. Though things grow exceedingly dark and murderous, the results are as much about commitment to the people you love as they are about cold, hard cash. And that's what makes "A Simple Plan" (even with several miscues) the most intriguing thriller of 1998. Those themes of commitment are beautifully articulated by Paxton and Thornton, both of whom (arguably) give the best performances of their careers.
I've always been somewhat noncommittal about Paxton. He's a serviceable Regular Joe most of the time, but I never get much more out of him than that. This time, though, he brings shadings to a character that could have been just another film noir shmuck-on-wheels. When his wife (played by Bridget Fonda, who unexpectedly graces us with a real performance for once) starts coming up with plans to further mislead the cops, you can see Hank sinking into an uneasy comfort zone. Surely, if his pregnant wife is into the idea of keeping the money, he's doing the proper thing. Right?
Well ... wrong. That comfort zone is soon shattered when Jacob and Hank wind up killing an old acquaintance of theirs who they're afraid is about to stumble upon the wreckage. (It seems highly unlikely, by the way, that absolutely nobody in town would have seen the plane go down, much less never spot the crash site. This really did bother me a bit, but not enough to ruin the movie.) Now, these two relatively gentle men have killed someone, they have a real live-wire of a co-conspirator in Lou, and they suspect the pilot's accomplice is heading to town in the misleading form of an FBI agent. The simple plan just isn't that simple anymore.
Remarkably complex characters
The relationship between Hank and Jacob is one of the more complex character-arcs that I've seen in a decidedly commercial film in a long, long time. Jacob, simply put, is a redneck loser. Thornton and the makeup artists push this quite a bit, physically speaking. (Jacob wears glasses that feature tape on the bridge and a cracked lens. He's got crooked, yellow teeth. He's got unkempt, greasy hair. He's even got chapped lips.)
But Thornton, just as he did so marvelously in "Sling Blade," nestles himself in the guy's heart as well as his skin. To a degree, you start to feel like Hank is only continuing with the plan in order to give his unfortunate brother something to live for. Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film comes when Jacob admits to Hank that he's never even kissed a woman before. He marvels at his great fortune in having had a girl go for a walk with him once in high school.
That's tremendous movie writing, because it relates to the lives these people were leading before the movie started. What keeps the film (even with its dramatic, but rather contrived ending) from becoming just another genre exercise is the care taken in carefully layering the characters' reasons for following through with the scheme. It's not all surface chatter, and the plot points are not completely taken up with the crime itself. There's real depth and breadth to the screenplay, a situation that many better-known directors than Raimi should take note of. Even thrills can be presented with dignity and a real sense of humanity, if you're talented and focused enough.
This one's definitely a winner.
"A Simple Plan" contains profanity and violence (one act is gruesome, another incredibly bloody.) Go see it for the performances, and try to ignore some of the leaps in logic. It's well worth your time and money. Rated R. 121 minutes.
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