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A Simply Ingenious 'Plan'

By Michael O'Sullivan
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
Brief nudity, profanity, murder, a dead body, shooting
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley.

– Robert Burns, "To a Mouse"

Burns understood something about life. So did John Steinbeck, who stole the Scottish poet's line about rodents for the title of his own 20th-century tragedy, "Of Mice and Men": Though the plan be simple, the way it plays out is usually anything but.

Based on the book by Scott B. Smith, "A Simple Plan" is that rarest of beasts: a thriller with not just a brain but a heart, and a complex, contradictory one at that. With elegant, clockwork construction, Smith has transplanted his novel of greed, betrayal and getting what you deserve to the screen, where it is told by director Sam Raimi with a spareness befitting the whiteness of its snowed-in setting.

The tale is set in motion one New Year's Eve when three guys in a pickup stumble on a small, downed plane, lying broken in the woods and buried in snow. After closer investigation, brothers Hank and Jacob Mitchell (Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton), along with pal Lou (Brent Briscoe), discover one dead occupant and a duffel bag containing $4.4 million.

"It's the American dream in a goddamn gym bag," mutters Lou in an all-too-accurate summation of the windfall.

Lou, fat, unemployed and alcoholic, and Jacob, just as jobless as well as what folks used to call "slow," are of a mind to take the money and run. Hank, on the other hand, is the cautious corner of the triangle. Married to expectant mom Sarah (Bridget Fonda), the responsible accountant and father-to-be urges his companions to entrust the money to him for safekeeping. Wait until the authorities find the plane, he explains, and if no one mentions the loot, the three can safely assume it was ill-gotten gains. Who's going to cry about a dead drug dealer and his missing money bag anyway?

Jacob and Lou don't like it, but Hank tells the dissenters that they either agree to his plan or he'll turn the money in now. All they have to do is keep their mouths shut until the spring thaw. Easier said than done.

The first thread to unravel, ironically, is Hank himself, who can't refrain from blurting the news to Sarah. In what is the film's only unconvincing transformation, Sarah evolves from sensible initial reluctance to gradual acceptance to machinations of Lady Macbethian proportions. It may be somewhat implausible, but Fonda makes her character's bizarre about-face compulsively watchable, as she sheds her veneer of middle-class complacency and happy marriage to reveal a pool of festering resentment.

Other loose fibers start to pull from the plan's fabric – with appalling consequences – as an outsider accidentally gets too close to the secret and the financially strapped Lou decides he cannot wait a few months for his share. Here is where the film really hits its stride, as the constellation of clutchers enters the territory of shifting allegiance and treachery.

The linchpin of the narrative is Jacob, torn between loyalty to his brother and to his best friend, Lou. With long, unkempt hair sticking out of his ever-present knit cap, and the nosepiece of his unfashionable glasses held together with duct tape, Jacob may be a geeky dimwit, but he acts as the moral force at the center of "A Simple Plan," a movie whose baroque structure grows more convoluted even as the plan disintegrates. As he did in "Sling Blade," Thornton turns a potentially mannered caricature into a richly nuanced and ultimately poignant performance.

Alternating between wide shots that poetically utilize the emptiness of the frozen Midwest and claustrophobic close-ups of his players' emotionally ravaged faces, Raimi gets the most out of a deceptively elemental plot. What he gets is the power of psychological truth over flashy effects and the importance of such old-fashioned notions as right and wrong – not to mention the occasional difficulty of telling the two apart.

With its emphasis on hard choices, uneasy moral compromises and bad ends, "Of Mice and Men" isn't this parable's only antecedent. "A Simple Plan" also calls to mind John Huston's great "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." "Simple" and "Treasure" both caution that the love of money is the root of all evil, but Raimi's appreciative but not slavish homage to the 1948 film shimmers with another, equally volatile kind of love – the dark and often destructive bond between brothers.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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