A Simple Plan
Sam Raimi's film A Simple Plan has been picking up Ten Best of 1998 listings from almost every critic around, but not from me, I'm afraid. The story, as you know, is about three men -- two brothers and the best friend of one of them -- who, one snowy day, stumble across a private plane that's crashed in the Minnesota woods. As they examine it they find a dead pilot and a duffel bag with more than $4 million inside. What to do? A big ethical question, since one of them, Hank (Bill Paxton), is a straight arrow with pregnant wife (Bridget Fonda), the second is his slow and thoughtless brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and the third, Lou (Brent Briscoe), Jacob's best friend, is a drunk and a loose cannon.
They make the fateful decision not to report the find, and to take the money, but they're hardly out of the woods when they make the first of an endless and agonizing series of mistakes and bad decisions, decisions that escalate into a horror that destroys their lives. Certainly it's a fascinating premise -- the film was written by Scott B. Smith from his novel -- and Raimi, with his background as a horror film director ("The Evil Dead" series), correctly handles all the mechanics of moving us step by step through the nightmare.
So what is wrong with the film? One problem is that it is all mechanics. No decision ever seems right to us in the audience at the time it's made. That is, for us to empathize with the protagonists we have to feel that these are good, or at least reasonable, men; and that they have some ability to consider the implications of what they do. We must feel that they're making, or at least trying to make, good decisions. But here only Paxton's character is presented as a thoughtful man. Thornton is slow and impulsive, and we feel toward him as we do to a beloved pet dog whose quirks we've learned to live with. And from the moment we meet Briscoe we know that his every word and act will cause death and destruction, as they do in fact. Fonda, the librarian wife of Paxton, makes the fastest switch in town from guardian of the moral high ground to young Lady Macbeth. Action without empathy leaves us cold.
Another weakness is the script itself. Everything that happens seems to be done by the numbers. We can almost predict each successive step in the film's trajectory; and because it's all contrivance there's no room for us to hope, to see alternatives, to share the experience, to be with the characters instead of merely looking at them -- certainly not until it's too late to save the film.
And then there is the problem of Bill Paxton. Like Ed Harris, he is an actor totally without charisma or visible personality. He is the perfect functionary, the best second-in-command, the friend of the lead, the kind of actor who used to fill out the roster of John Wayne westerns. He became a lead in Carl Franklin's marvelous "One False Move," but if you examine that film again you see that he's the stick figure who merely moves the plot along. Without demeaning Paxton, he is too uninteresting to carry a film on his shoulders.
Only Thornton truly inhabits his role. A slow thinker who's made the ultimate bad choice of a friend (Briscoe), living in the shadow of his brighter brother, carrying resentments while still acknowledging his own responsibilities for managing his life, and finally understanding more about what's happened than anyone else in the film, he is the one truly sympathetic human being here. But by the time we learn that, it's too late to save the movie.