A Simple Plan
*** Stars
(US 1998)


Starring:
Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe

Directed by Sam Raimi

Writing credits: Scott B. Smith

Paramount * 121 minutes


A SIMPLE PLAN is a deceptively small film that asks questions familiar from other stories and films (1994's SHALLOW GRAVE comes to mind): What would you do if you found a large sum of money? What does such a moral dilemma do to otherwise decent people?

In A SIMPLE PLAN, based on Scott B. Smith's acclaimed novel, Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) is a relatively contented man, living a relatively contented, if limited life with his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda). His somewhat developmentally challenged brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton, almost unrecognizable in geek glasses and a stringy wig) appears to be his only problem.

The two brothers, along with Jacob's friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) discover a downed plane, almost totally hidden in the snow. In attempting to help whoever might be inside, they find a duffel bag filled with over four million dollars in cash. Hank, who enjoys some degree of affection and respect from his neighbors and acquaintances, experiences a moral dilemma about whether to keep the money. Lou and Jacob, however, are chronically unemployed and see it as a way out of their miserable existences. Hank ultimately capitulates, on the condition that he will store the cash and determine when and if it should ultimately be divided.

When first told of the cash in the abstract, Sarah believes unquestionably that it should be turned in. When the cash materializes on her own dining room table, however, she experiences a change of heart, and becomes a full-blown participant in the escalating mayhem that ensues. She urges Hank to return some of the money to the plane so it appears to be undiscovered. He and Jacob comply, and are inadvertently discovered by a neighbor, who does not survive to report them.

The two brothers are now accomplices in a crime, and the plot follows their efforts to conceal the crime as well as the money, and the potential for disaster increases exponentially.

The stark but lyrical photograph by Alar Kivilo draws contrasts between the shades-of-gray, snowy environment in which the action around the money takes place and the warm tones of the homes of the three protagonists from Hank's comfortable working class home to Jacob's tumbledown flat. An effective score by Danny Elfman, with none of the Tim Burton quirks one ordinarily associates with Elfman's film work, creates an effective backdrop to the action.

I've never believed Bill Paxton to be much of an actor, but his laconic woodenness serves him well here as Hank. It's a fine, understated performance that tells much of its story through subtle facial expression. Thornton, who seems to be making a career out of playing this sort of character, is remarkably effective -- and heartbreaking as Jacob. He's reminiscent of John Steinbeck's Lennie in his dream of buying back the family's abandonned family farm as his key to the kind of normal life others take for granted. Bridget Fonda, in a supporting role that gains in importance through the film, is astonishing as her demeanor changes from that of a beatific, serene Madonna to a conniver in the plot to keep the money. Her sharp features grow even sharper as the makes the transformation. A speech in which she reveals to Hank her dissatisfaction with their frugal life is chilling.

At two hours, A SIMPLE PLAN is still a tightly-wound thriller that is as surprising as its plot is predictable.

A SIMPLE PLAN  official site



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