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'Simple Plan':
The Gods Must Be Laughing

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 1999

  Movie Critic

A Simple Plan
Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton begin to unravel. (Paramount)

Sam Raimi
Bill Paxton;
Billy Bob Thornton;
Brent Briscoe;
Bridget Fonda;
Jack Walsh
Running Time:
2 hours, 3 minutes
Psychological intensity, frozen bodies and gun violence involving head shots and shotguns
It sounds like a story of the corruptive power of greed, a kind of treasure of Delano, Minnesota. 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. 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.

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 corn stalks 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 four-square 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 fate.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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