A Simple Plan (1998)

Directed by Sam Raimi


A Simple Plan is Fargo-lite with a little Macbeth mixed in.  It’s a story in which five people die, yet the whole thing ends up feeling melodramatic.  At the same time it’s quite entertaining, as it’s just off the rails enough that you never know where it’s going to go.  Once you buy into the misguided characters’ uneven logic, you’re able to find the movie quite funny.  Sam Raimi’s movie, it seems, tried so hard to subvert your expectations that it subverted even rational thinking.  It’s like Hank and the supporting cast of characters are enslaved by the script, destined for tragedy in a Shakespearean way, but arriving there through contrived, silly character decisions and plot mechanics.  I suggest looking at this movie like a meta-commentary on movies in general.  If you consider that Hank knows he’s in a movie (which, there’s no indication of this), then his behavior becomes a symptom of the way characters are supposed to act.  It’s like he knows what the intelligent, rational thing to do is, but then he just can’t do it because… he’s in a movie and therefore made dumber so that things will fail.

I mean, imagine that.  You’re in the woods, and you find $4 million, and you’re thrilled, this is great news!  But then dumb people do dumb things, and you yourself act dumb as well, but inside there’s a voice in your head asking, “why did I do that?”  Hank is trapped by his own poor decisions and by listening to the even poorer decisions of those around him.  Man, in this context the movie is much more horrifying, but, again, the movie never indicates that it is some kind of meta horror film, but I just really wish it was and went further.

Okay, so really this movie is just extremely campy without admitting it.  For the first thirty minutes I was unsure if I could even finish the movie, but after a certain point, when a particular woman gets shotgunned in the chest, I was laughing.  That’s not because I’m a monster, but because the conflict that led to that event felt so unbelievable that it was just hilarious.  It’s like when you’re having a bad day and so many little things go wrong and you just have to laugh.  But Hank wasn’t laughing, just me.

If you look at this movie (I know I’m repeating myself) as a drain which Hank is circling, like there’s some kind of omnipotence dragging him down, it makes much more sense.  The whole thing is so overtly tragic that it has to be funny.  The movie after all is called A Simple Plan and it’s anything but simple, so it’s all one big joke.

Hank (Bill Paxton) and his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) go hunting with Jacob’s rowdy friend Lou (Brent Briscoe).  It’s the middle of the winter, and among the snow they find a small plane wreck.  Beside that is a black duffel bag with about $4.5 million.  Jacob is dim-witted, and that’s made clear when he can’t do the math of how much each of them gets were they to split it three ways (Come on Jacob, 4.5 become 1.5, you can do this).

The first act of the movie spends so much time setting up each character in forced, awkward detail.  Jacob isn’t smart, Lou is rowdy and unpredictable (and a drunk), and Hank is way too rigidly moral.  He suggests they turn the money over to the police, which the others turn down.  Eventually Hank says the only way he’ll go with the plan to keep the money is if he himself holds onto all the money for now, and for some reason the other two guys go with it.

Now, I thought the conflict would be Jacob and Lou turning on Hank, either robbing him of the money or worse, but I have to give the story credit because it makes Hank the source of the problem.  He’s so perfect when we first meet him.  He’s hardworking and sober where the others aren’t, and he even has a beautiful pregnant wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda).  And of course Hank thinks they should turn the money in.

Well he comes home with the money, and you think he’s going to hide it from his wife, but nope, he pours it on the table for her to see.  Sarah becomes just as integral to the plan as Hank, even more than him when she starts to plant doubt in his mind and instruct him on what to do.

Things start to get bad for Hank when he decides he needs to return to the plane crash for some reason.  His logic was something about putting the dead pilot back in place as Hank had accidentally dislodged him from his seat when he found the wreckage, but I don’t see how this is a reason to go back to the crash site.  Anyways he decides to bring Jacob, who we already know makes dumb decisions, and Jacob ends up hitting an old man over the head when he becomes scared that the old man will stumble upon the wreckage as he’s headed that way into the forest.  This frightens Jacob because Hank, in his paranoia, warned Jacob that they mustn’t be tied to the wreckage because when people show up looking for the missing money, they’ll follow the tracks to Hank, Jacob and Lou.

So now Hank has to make another simple plan, this time to stage the old man’s death to look like an accident.  The man wakes up, and Hank smothers him to death before going through with the plan to make it look like he died in an accident.  When Jacob comes by, he is full of guilt and says they should just go to the police.  This is where everything started to get pretty funny because it’s like the characters realized how much trouble they made for themselves simply by not communicating effectively.  Just talk about what you gotta do before you do it.

In act 2, things get heated between Hank and Lou.  Lou demands his money, Hank says no, then Hank asks Jacob who’s side he’s on.  Meanwhile, Sarah has the baby and in one of the craziest, most hilarious scenes, she tells Hank that he needs to blackmail Lou so they can protect themselves.  This is where she starts to really feel like Lady Macbeth.  At this point we’ve already seen Sarah come up with a plan to plant $500,000 at the crash site so it looks like no one picked up the money (who would’ve just left half a million there?), and she only kind of bat an eye when Hank told her he killed someone.  I mean Jesus Christ, there really are no secrets between them, huh?  Actually, this doesn’t make sense either, though I suppose it does.  Hank and his wife communicate so well, but then he and his two sort of pals get in a whole lot of trouble because they can’t just talk things through.

Hank, though, is an elitist.  He thinks he’s better than his dim-witted brother and Lou the drunk, and his ego is what dooms him.  He becomes a control freak and antagonizes both of them.

Anyways, Hank forces Jacob (with the promise of letting him by the farm, but Jacob should already be able to do that on his own with his share of the money) to go along with the plan to get a confession from Lou, saying he killed the old man at the end of act 1.  They do this by getting Lou drunk, then asking him to act out the scenario of what it would look like if Hank confessed.  It’s a very, very silly scene, and Hank records it, then immediately plays the audio back for Lou to hear.  It feels like every other thriller has a scene where someone secretly records a confession, like so much so that you’d think it happens a few times a week in real life.

Well Lou doesn’t like that he was lied to, so he gets his gun, points it at Hank, and Jacob gets his gun, pointing it at Lou.  Ultimately Jacob shoots and kills him, and Lou’s wife, furious and distraught, grabs her gun, forcing Hank to kill her.  This scene becomes so unexpectedly explosive that you have to laugh.  I thought, after Lou’s wife was killed, that Lou would wake up because I swear I saw his eyelids twitch.  I was so ready for him to wake up.  It felt perfect for the story, highlighting how these characters act quickly and without thinking, only to realize immediately that they screwed up.  But Lou didn’t wake up.

The final act deals with a man who shows up, claiming to be an FBI agent, played by Gary Cole.  He wants to see the crash site, but then Hank’s wife tells him that he’s not actually an FBI agent.  It’s silly, again, because you’d think the police chief, who vouches for him, would’ve asked to see some identification, but he never did.  The police chief is bad at his job, it’s safe to say.  Not only because he is easily fooled by an imposter, but then he leaves Hank alone in his office where he steals a gun.

There’s the showdown where not-FBI agent Gary Cole shoots the police officer and Hank shoots Gary Cole.  And then, when the movie determines it needs to be extra tragic but also kind of funny, Jacob tells Hank to kill him.  Why?  This didn’t need to happen, but the movie decides it does, and when Jacob tells Hank to kill him, he says no, as you do when a sibling orders you to kill them.  But then Jacob convinces him like a minute later to do it.  Hank is so easily convinced that you have to think he wanted to all along, but there was no indication that he wanted his brother dead, and there’s no reason for him to want him dead.

So yeah, a lot of this movie is very contrived, but it ends up being really entertaining in a horror movie “DON’T GO IN THAT OLD HOUSE YOU MORON” kind of way.

Hank burns the money once the real FBI agent tells him that they’re tracking the money, so if it shows up anywhere, they’ll know where to look.  This too is silly because you’d think Hank would consider a way to save the money because it’s $4 million.  Maybe he can take a class on money laundering or something.  There’s a way to work around this, I’m sure.  But this information is presented as the only truth in this movie world, the ultimate joke, making it clear that none of this happened for any reason.

There’s a way to watch and appreciate and even love this movie.  It’s with an understanding that the contrivances, character decisions and overall ego and stupidity is not so much a movie cliche but instead an admission that we’re all in on the joke.  It’s satire, I suppose, except I don’t know if it intended to be.


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