26 July 2009

Retro Review: A Simple Plan (1998)


A Simple Plan
1998, 123mins, R
Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Scott. B . Smith
Cast includes: Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Cole, Brent Briscoe
Release Date: 11th December 1998 (limited)

“A Simple Plan” is an oft forgotten 90’s thriller that amidst its directors plethora of cult favourites tends to be overlooked by the cineastes of the world. Well structured and acted with some superb writing “A Simple Plan” is deserving of higher remembrance than time has granted, it could sit very happily alongside “Evil Dead”, “Spider-Man” or this years “Drag Me to Hell” as a Raimi classic but seems to have been hazed out of cinematic memory over the past 11 years. No matter, home entertainment ensures that underappreciated gems such as this are always open for rediscovery and this startlingly good thriller is a film I heartily recommend you reacquaint yourself with.

Hank (Bill Paxton) is the mild mannered but respected manager of the local Hardware store; he has a pregnant and loving wife, comfortable amounts of money and ultimately the peace of mind that around him are a strong circle of reliable friends. One day Hank, his well meaning but dim witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) uncover the wreckage of a plane and inside find a gym bag with over $4 million stashed inside. Hank immediately thinks to contact the authorities but Jacob and Lou suggest the trio divide it up and each become fabulously wealthy, insinuating that it’s likely the product of drugs anyhow. A truce is reached in that Hank will hold onto the money until spring and if nothing is said once the plane is uncovered, then they can take their respective shares. However things quickly turn nasty as seeds of doubt start to grow in each of their heads and eventually things reach a taut climax featuring deceit, treachery and even murder.

The one compliant that can be made of “A Simple Plan” is big enough from allowing it to attain the status of true masterwork but far from large enough for it to be reduced to anything approaching average. The first hour is accomplished filmmaking in every sense and the final 40 minutes regain the momentum, it’s just the 20 minutes in-between feel a little flaccid and ponderous. It’s not that this stretch doesn’t serve a purpose; it puts forward some extra character motivation and vital plot mechanics but ultimately it’s just not as supremely tense as what comes before and after. It’s possible that via more stringent editing this wouldn’t be such a notable scratch on an otherwise immaculate surface, certainly had it been shaved to fifteen minutes it might have been minor enough to let “A Simple Plan” truly become a wondrous dollop of movie magic, audiences having to settle for merely “very good” instead.

The performances are terrific, each character serves an important function within the movie and each actor applies a skilled touch to make them work. Paxton is sympathetic and entirely believable as the lead, his deterioration as the story plays out is measured and avoids any sort of exaggerated camp that even the best actors can fall victim to. He engages the audiences and thanks in large part to Scott. B Smith’s writing forges genuine and interesting relationships with the other characters. Even as his actions become increasingly motivated by greed and clouded by ill judgement the audience likes Hank and can identify with the feelings such a scenario conjures within the average person. He’s a good man who under foolish pretences is made to do bad things. Billy Bob Thornton is nicely restrained as Hank’s slow minded brother, Raimi keeps things under check and Thornton in an understated way might deliver the movie’s best performance as a consequence. His bond with Paxton is emotionally viable and throughout the character of Jacob offers some interesting questions through his naivety and innocence, adding an extra layer of depth to “A Simple Plan”. Bridget Fonda is decent as Hank’s wife corrupted by the possibility of a fortune laden future whilst Briscoe carries off the part of the drunken buddy with competency and relative ease.

The plot is serpentine in how naturally and hypnotically it twists and weaves, the first hour and closing segment are text-book in their execution of quietly chilling and disturbing thrills. It helps massively that we’re given a credible roster of good characterisations and bountiful performances to engage with but Raimi and his writer deserve kudos for building up such a well fortified and clever example of suspense and mystery. Anyone doubting Riami’s ability to wring intrigue and menace from a story this full of it would be a fool, the director not disappointing as he mines fear from the uncertain and eerie foreboding with his stark visuals and imagery. Like the best movies “A Simple Plan” works the snow covered landscape and assortment of black crows that inhabit the picture into entities, morphing them into harbingers of dread on appearance.

There are alot of messages that “A Simple Plan” exhibits and multiple themes it explores, not least that anything inherently “simple” rarely is and that when things seem “to good to be true” they likely are. The disintegration of the initially wholesome characters also brazenly carries a message regarding the corruptive powers of money and how in the race to achieve it humans quickly turn distrustful and nasty. Taking these ideas and well rounded characters “A Simple Plan” forms into an enrapturing thriller that is made all the more memorable via a dark and suitably bleak conclusion. The movie as a whole has a fairly unpleasant edge but the finish is nihilistic and unrelenting in ways that even the most cynical viewers are unlikely to expect.

One hopes that in the future this movie gets the appreciation and attention it truly deserves, whilst not without fault Raimi’s effort is far more advanced and artistically motivated than 99% of mainstream thrillers and a fair testament to its director’s skill. It might never be regarded as a true classic and maybe given a patchy 20 minutes at it’s centre that’s only fair, but it would simply be a shame if this superior work of cinema was to be forgotten and overlooked by film fans in generations to come.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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