Three years after The Quick and the Dead (1995), Sam Raimi returned to the big screen in search of a new, less flashy style. A Simple Plan is a surprisingly low-key, generic exercise from the auteur who redefined spectacular display, horrific gore, over-the-top gags and pyrotechnical camera work in the 1980s (especially in his Evil Dead trilogy).
A Simple Plan, adapted by Scott B. Smith from his novel, recalls the feel of a 1940s film noir like Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944). The story meticulously plots the steps whereby a bunch of normal people follow an unexpected temptation and become immersed in a catastrophe whose consequences keep compounding.
For brothers Hank (Bill Paxton) and Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), the crisis begins when they find a plane crash – and a conveniently dead pilot with a very large stash of money.
As paranoia, mistrust and fear start eating away at these characters, Raimi's controlled way of rendering this tale reveals a startling paradox. While deceit, betrayal and even murder become almost neutral activities, it is the ring of a telephone or a knock at the door which registers as adrenalin-pumping action for the characters – and also for us.
Like many noir films since Double Indemnity (1944), A Simple Plan shows how any scam built upon a shared secret leads to an instant erosion of friendship and its values. More intriguingly, this story delves into the relationship between Hank and his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda). She quickly transforms from a sweet gal into a hectoring operator, and her largely off-screen actions have an enormous bearing on how the plot finally unravels.
A Simple Plan cleverly avoids the great cliché of the modern psychological thriller, which is to begin with a typical marriage or family in the grip of a soul-destroying, alienating malaise. Here, Raimi convincingly shows, in Hank and Sarah, a couple content with their homely lot – and then just as convincingly shows how the introduction of money turns these people inside-out. The image of millions of dollars pouring onto their loungeroom table is a crucial and memorable one.
Raimi pays more attention to his actors here than he has in the past. The casting of Paxton is a masterstroke – his facial expression, often verging on unreadable blankness, can as easily twist into a mask of innocence as an intimation of creeping immorality. Fonda takes a role that could easily have conveyed a misogynist fantasy, and gives total psychological plausibility to this inadvertent femme fatale.
The jury is still out on Thornton's skill as an actor. He is already an accomplished screenwriter and a highly promising director, but his performance here (as elsewhere) is all exaggerated verbal and physical tics. He is more like a wind-up special effect than a human being. Still, Jacob's growing sense of helplessness and guilt ("I feel evil") manages to generate some terse pathos.
A Simple Plan is a modest, somewhat familiar film – at times it seems like Fargo (1995) without the cartoonish excess – but its execution is impressively effective.
© Adrian Martin February 1999