Thursday, February 28, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: A Simple Plan (1998)

It's funny the way some films can fade from the collective consciousness over time.  I would be willing to bet that if someone were asked to name a film from either Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, or director Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan would not be top of mind.  But it is arguably their best individual work, a magnificently tense and suspenseful character study about the way morality can dissolve under intense pressure and paranoia.  Seeing it again after at least a decade, I found myself drawn into the vortex of these characters and caught up in their desperation as bad decisions compound on top of each other until the whole thing comes crashing down.

We often hypothesize about what would happen if we found a large sum of money.  If we won the lottery or stumbled upon a hefty bag of hundred dollar bills, what would we do?  Of course these scenarios we cook up are always positive, but rarely do they seem to work out that way and even more rare that they ever happen to begin with.  But this is where we find Hank, Jacob, and Lou, three ordinary men who happen upon a small jet crashed and covered in snow one winter afternoon.  In the private plane, aside from a corpse, the three men discover a duffel bag with millions of dollars in cash.  They convince themselves this is drug money, or cash used for unseemly gains, and this helps influence them to keep the cash, split it, and tell nobody.  The plan seems, well, simple enough.  But as personalities begin shining through, paranoia mounts, and tension escalates.

Hank, played by Bill Paxton, is the most squared away of the trio.  He has a comfortable life in a nice home, works at the feed store in town, and has a loving wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), who is expecting their first child.  Hank sees this new-found wealth as an opportunity to live comfortably, happy well into old age.  It is one less worry for his young and growing family.  Jacob is Hank's brother, an unintelligent and homely loser played by Billy Bob Thornton behind chunky eyeglasses, pale skin and a shock of stringy hair.  Jacob goes along with the plan early with great excitement with giddiness of a child.  We find out later in a sad and touching scene between Jacob and Hank that Jacob just wants love.  He wants to kiss a girl some time in his life, and he hopes this money will help him achieve such a simple goal.  Lou (the great character actor Brent Briscoe), on the other hand, is adrift in life, in debt and alcoholic and perhaps more desperate for the cash than any of them.

There is a murder.  Then a cover up.  Things begin happening and the three men begin to unravel under the pressure of unexpected wealth.  Sarah thinks Hank needs to take back $500,000 so nobody will come looking for the money.  Lou disagrees.  The degeneration of these characters is the focus of the picture, as problems create other problems, and a plan to set up one of the three goes horribly awry.  There are external elements which heighten the thriller elements of A Simple Plan.  A mysterious man from the FBI (Gary Cole) appears and claims to be looking for the plane.  This simple plan grows worse until the decisions of these men have corrupted them to the core.

This is the finest work in Bill Paxton's career.  He thrives playing the everyman, an innocent and naive square thrust into extreme circumstances.  Hank has more to lose than anyone, and his desperation coupled with a superior intelligence over the other two men put him in a unique spot.  Billy Bob Thornton has delivered in some great films, and this is right there at the top of his long career.  Nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar here, Thornton embodies Jacob as someone we all knew in high school who grew up to go nowhere and have no one.  Aside from the thriller aspects of the film this is a fantastic character study, an examination of what greed and desperation can do to the soul.  The winter setting, snowy and quiet and isolated from the rest of the world, adds wonderful and ominous texture.

A Simple Plan is quite a departure for Sam Raimi, who made his name on the low-budget Evil Dead franchise and the Spider Man trilogy in the 2000s.  This is proof he can branch out into more adult fare, as he handles the elements of a straight thriller and a compelling human drama as well as most who venture into this genre.  A Simple Plan grabbed the Thornton nomination as well as a Screenplay nod at the 1998 Academy Awards, but still seems to fall by the wayside in the careers of those involved.  That doesn't make it any less brilliant.