After Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Usual Suspects (1995), filmmakers around the globe knocked themselves out trying to devise mystery-thriller plots with the maximum number of twists, tricks and revelations.
Chronology is scrambled, different voice-over narrations and points-of-view multiply ... and the results are often contrived and wearying.
Best Laid Plans takes a more minimal approach to the same genre. Nick (Alessandro Nivola) sits in a bar with his rather obnoxious chum, Bryce (Josh Brolin). In walks an alluringly trashy femme fatale, Lissa (Reese Witherspoon). Fade out.
What we do not see during that fade out constitutes the first big question – and the first daring plot move – in Best Laid Plans. There are to be two further moves of this kind, each of which abruptly rearranges what we have come to understand of these characters and their world.
The elements of the story are the familiar film noir tokens: sex, deceit, money, manipulation. However, the structure devised by writer Ted Griffin and director Mike Barker maintains the air of intrigue by constantly presenting us with odd, improbable, teasing vignettes – like the Tarantino-style stand-over man who talks economic theory while waving a gun in people's faces.
Best Laid Plans makes a valiant attempt to add a depth of characterisation, and a sense of place, to the plot machinations. The rapport between Nick and Lissa is marked by both tenderness and mutual suspicion – echoing the predicament of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).
The film's milieu is one of colourless bars, sterile homes and featureless, suburban streets – a milieu of dead-ends and last chances which prompts understandable fantasies of escape in the characters. The mood is closer to John Huston's Fat City (1972) than the novels of Elmore Leonard.
Best Laid Plans is a modest, slightly under-developed piece which manages to hold one's attention and sympathy even beyond its third and riskiest plot twist. It is understated rather than dazzling – which is exactly what sets it apart from many routine films of this type.
© Adrian Martin November 1999