A Simple Plan
Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Gary Cole, Chelcie Ross, Becky Ann Baker. Screenplay: Scott B. Smith (based on his novel).

A Simple Plan is a simple thriller that honestly gives no indication of where all the media and critical enthusiasm already building for the picture have come from. The premise was provocative enough to have made Scott B. Smith's novel a bestseller when it debuted in 1993. Three men—two brothers, Hank (Bill Paxton) and Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's hanger-on pal Lou (Brent Briscoe)—are tramping through the snow-covered woods of the northern Midwest one day, landed there via one of those clearly telegraphed and impossible to remember movie scenarios involving three guys in a pickup truck who slide off the icy road while trying not to hit a fox. After some squabbling in the ranks about who was to blame for the accident, the three fellas begin to pursue the fox into the thatch of thin, leafless winter trees. It is a foregone conclusion they will find more there than they bargained for. But what a bargain it seems to be!

During this capricious little interlude, the men discover a wrecked propeller plane in which are housed two rather tantalizing artifacts. One is the rotting corpse of the pilot, his face already being picked and digested by the flock of ravens that inhabit the woods. (Get it?—ravens.) This little bit of Grand Guignol is just the right dosage to confirm that we are watching a Sam Raimi film, who seems to be testing his stylistic mettle outside of the pictures (the jumpin'-innards Evil Dead series, Darkman) that have made his cultish reputation. Enough with the corpse, though, this isn't that kind of film, at least not yet. The other key recovery from the plane is a large black zipper-tote—the article's resemblance to a bodybag should not be ignored—in which Hank and his cohorts discover $4.4 million in seemingly unmarked $100 bills.

As any mathematician will tell you, $4.4 million does not divide easily three ways.

"Drug money," hisses Lou, the most vitriolic and relentlessly ignorant of the group, though one aggravating factor of A Simple Plan is that none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, even before greed and counter-factioning take hold of all of them. Hank insists that the money should be given to the police despite Lou's protests that nobody would be the wiser, and that Hank is just appropriating another moment in which to flaunt his superiority over himself and Jacob. Hank's steady job, happy marriage to town librarian Sarah (Bridget Fonda), alleged receiving of parental favoritism, and his opportunity for college education all make him rather haughty in Lou's eyes. In Jacob's, which are not so clouded by bear-baiting rage but are certainly dulled and soured by his own complex of inferiority, either man could have the right solution. But Jacob's is not a mind that seems to gravitate toward the moral gray zones of a dilemma, and presented with a life's fortune in a few easy steps, he is not going to say no.

Neither Raimi nor Smith, adapting his own novel, make clear at what moment the protagonists—particularly Hank or Sarah—is convinced of the wisdom, even the justice of holding on to these funds. I wish I could consider such ambiguity a credit to the movie, or an asset to a building mood of mystery and shifting behaviors. Unfortunately, the film is not so much reticent about what spurs these characters into immoral decisions as it is overeager to pile so many possible, psych-lite motivations that nothing holds water or compels us very much. In addition to the class and education divisions that have arisen between Hank and Jacob, Thornton's character in particular is ascribed romantic frustrations, enterprising farming aspirations, and a host of stop-on-a-dime sea-changes in attitude that neither the script nor the actor's adequate but frankly showy performance can make very convincing.

Fonda's character is also a rather botched creation in the screenplay. The actress has never overflowed with charisma, but she was vital in Jackie Brown and is serviceable here. Still, who on earth would know how to play a woman who is given her newborn baby to hold in her arms for only the second or third time, and literally within seconds blurts out in tight-gazed seriousness to her husband, "I want you to get one of those little tape recorders." It's all part of her developing scheme for relieving Hank of blame and ensuring both freedom from accusation and financial security for her newly-expanded family unit.

I suppose her practical desires for expanded means has also expanded with the arrival of Father's Little Dividend. The close temporality of Sarah's switcheroo into cold, pragmatic plan-hatcher and her blossoming into motherhood and breast-feeding probably means something to the guys who wrote this, but it doesn't translate well for anyone who'd want to focus on this half-baked character long enough to wonder.

All in all, the recurring motifs of twittering crows, foxes in chicken coops, and other blatantly portentous imagery is belabored, and for all the consternation that Thornton and the effective Paxton demonstrate in close-up, there's not a thing that happens in A Simple Plan that you don't see coming half-hours in advance. The film's best performance is a one-sequence livewire from Becky Ann Baker as Lou's self-assertive but deeply affectionate wife, proving that the size of a role has nothing to do with its potential power if acted with precision, economy, and freshness. Those same qualities are embodied in Danny Elfman's perfect musical score, and there is a rather stunning early sequence in which Paxton seems fully conscious of the horrible, unpremeditated atrocity he cannot help himself from committing, even though at that instant the charcters could still turn the money back in and get off scott-free. There is something to be said for the inexorability of greed and emotion in this picture; I just didn't feel they were matched by any momentum or daring in terms of plot. Besides, "Money corrupts everyone" is right up there with "War is Hell" in the Who's Arguing? category of screen themes; if you're going to tackle these old stand-bys again, you better have some innovative or well-oiled techniques in line to make us want to re-take the familiar trip.

Hitchcock, to whom more than a few critics have eagerly and to me inexplicably compared Raimi's work on this film, never foisted such banally unconvincing mental conflicts on his genuinely flustered or tortured characters, and the mere presence of ominous birds does not a Hitchcock picture make. His character dualities were never so marked or predictable (favored son over black sheep, couple with child against couple without) that we could forecast everyone's fate so confidently. Nor do over-the-top symbolism, moody photography, and pared-down dialogue always suggest a disciplined and refreshing "classicism," as per Owen Gleiberman; sometimes there's just not much of interest going on.

The most recurring parallel in my own mind to the terribly self-serious A Simple Plan—and I was not the only viewer laughing, and it was not just at the jokes—is Adrian Lyne's Indecent Proposal, which at least knew it was a high concept, what-would-you-do picture and didn't pretend to be more. The comparison is not altogether fair, because it derides those craftsmanly elements that Raimi's film does possess, and also underrepresents what a riveting and tightly bolted film this might have been, beyond just the enjoyable schlock of Lyne's price-is-right game. So why not take more time with the changes of moral heart, and less on the ravens? Why not find a way to create "atmosphere" through means that don't give away the trajectory of the film completely? And how the hell did those ravens get into a crashed plane that Paxton found all locked up to begin with? (Broken windshield, I guess, though I don't remember seeing one.)

This story is about three men who think they've stumbled on a foolproof road to success, but then things go terribly and suddenly wrong. Watching this potentially tight material get flattened and drawn-out, I was starting to understand how these guys felt. Grade: C–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Billy Bob Thornton
Best Adapted Screenplay: Scott B. Smith

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Billy Bob Thornton

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actor (Thornton; tie)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actor (Thornton; tie)
National Board of Review: Best Screenplay

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