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Tempting the Fates; The Brilliant Complexity of 'A Simple Plan'

Posted 02/11/99

The Washington Post
By Stephen Hunter, Washington Post Staff Writer
Page C01 (Style)
1 graphic from the movie


An indepth review of Sam Raimi's film "A Simple Plan". Xena is mentioned derogatorily.


   It sounds like a story of the corruptive power of greed, a kind of treasure
of Delano, Minn. A jest of fate leads three men to a cash fortune in the snowy
woods (in the hulk of a crashed plane). They decide to keep all $ 4 million of
it. But as the months roll by, the paranoia begins, and one doubt leads to
another until a final spasm of violence leaves many people dead and the few
survivors in a state of shock.

   But Sam Raimi's brilliant visualization of "A Simple Plan" really examines a
more fundamental philosophical problem than greed. It's about the classical
weakness that always got them giggling up there on the balmy summit of Mount
Olympus when they gazed down and beheld the true wretchedness of us hairy,
hustling Homo sapiens sapiens. The ancient gods knew: Nobody ever went broke
underestimating human pride. It goeth before the fall and it stayeth after the
fall. In fact, that damned stuff is alwayseth around! You could see it on the
television all this week! 

   For nice guy Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), a feed store clerk and kind of
everyman in bluejeans, pride bites hard when he looks upon the money in the
shattered fuselage of a Beechcraft. He's no dummy. He's been to college, he can
run a balance sheet and figure out his taxes. He has a pretty, pregnant wife and
a secure life. But . . . the money. It has to be illicit, because it's all small
bills and no one searched for the plane or the dead pilot defrosting in the
shattered cockpit, a crow trough where his eye used to be. It's really free
money. He wavers under pressure and then begins to entertain the possibility
that if he stays rational and disciplined, he can work out a way to harvest it,
without pain.

   Of course what he is expressing is a model of the universe that is flawed. At
the core of his belief is that the universe is rational and obedient to the iron
will of logic: If you do X, the universe will respond Y. Talk about vanity,
vanity, vanity, this is a firestorm of the vanities. He doesn't realize that if
you do X, the universe will respond with: B-7-a-IIIVX@dotcom.

   That booming you hear is the old gods laughing. Oh, this is a yuk-fest, a
goof-o-rama, the funniest sitcom since that wacky gal Medea murdered her own
kids to show up ex-hubby Jason, who'd taken a trophy wife! This one is just as
hoot-rich, because of course Hank hasn't figured on the mischief of unintended
consequences. The universe doesn't like to be fooled. The empire of reality
always strikes back.
Post, January 22, 1999

   So the film tracks the off-kilter course that Hank's small, smart decision
takes him and his two dim-bulb co-conspirators. They are his sad brother Jacob
(Billy Bob Thornton), a good-hearted, marginally retarded fellow who has made
the career move into odd jobs and light hauling; and Jacob's equally defective
if not quite so stupid pal Lou (Brent Briscoe), who is both unemployed and
unemployable, but one of the industrial world's major six-pack consumers.

   The movie watches as these three, and all who sail with them, veer toward the
edge of the world, confident that just one more little maneuver and they are in
the promised land of milk and honey. Of course they end up in the abyss.

   Goaded by a wife so moral at first and so corrupt eventually, poor Hank has
to deal with the greed of his partner, the stupidity of his brother, the
curiosity of a local farmer and the ultimate arrival of a suspicious FBI agent.
It's like watching a rat in a labyrinth in the Yale Behavioral Lab be zapped
this way and that by random bolts of electricity, unaware that it's only
graduate students amusing themselves.

   The director, Raimi, is a famed stylist -- not always a good thing. His films
have been of a variety of genres but only one modality: the
are-we-having-fun-yet? school of moviemaking, a hip, irony-scorched zone of
razzle-dazzle. To list them is pretty much to gag: "Darkman," the "Evil Dead"
series and "The Quick and the Dead," itself cause for banishment from the
industry, and I haven't even mentioned that he produces "Xena: Warrior Princess"
on TV! But he's instructed his fabulous Style to take a hike, and, working from
Scott Smith's brilliantly reconfigured script from Smith's own (much darker)
novel, delivers a piece that is severe and disciplined in its evocation of the
cold terrors of fate.

   Thus the movie's insidious accumulation of horror seems to come from within
instead of being imposed from without. Raimi has a fine eye for imagery that
amplifies character and mood without braining you. Never has winter seemed
colder, wetter, more desolate than this long pull through the Minnesota cold
season. Never have crows seemed such harbingers of tragedy. Never have raggedy
rows of plucked cornstalks rattled with quite the quickened clickety-clack of
bones. Never have the rural environs of America seemed more desolate and
benumbed with grief and hopelessness.

   I should add here that the film shares nothing with the one that all the
other boys and girls are comparing it to, that is, "Fargo" by the Coen brothers.
"Fargo" was parody, which banged various high-plains Minnesota types into each
other for black comic giggles against a milieu of arch surrealism. "A Simple
Plan" is far more literal, set in a recognizably real world where nobody's a
goof or a geographical cliche. (For the record, the movie itself never specifies
Minnesota as a location and the only internal evidence is the license plates on
the vehicles; the original novel was set in the equally cold winter and upon the
equally bleak landscapes of rural Ohio.)

   Actually, "A Simple Plan" is far more reminiscent of another Paxton-Thornton
collaboration, "One False Move." Both are dark moral fables that play Paxton's
evident decency against Thornton's cracker stupidity and meanness until both
eventually pull back to discover other, contradictory values in their
characters. And again, both actors are excellent (and again, Thornton, in the
showier role, is better). Bridget Fonda plays the scheming wife with foursquare
Midwestern go-getterness that would do her grandpa proud. The real discovery
is probably Briscoe, whose bristly, embittered reprobate will be familiar to
anybody who's spent too much time at gun shows.

   But what's most right of all is the equation that lies at the heart of the
story, as originally codified by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: Character is

   A Simple Plan (123 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for psychological
intensity, frozen bodies and gun violence involving head shots and shotguns.
Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton let greed get the better of them in "A Simple
Plan." Bob Thornton, left, Bill Paxton and Brent Briscoe make a costly plan.

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