Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

A SIMPLE PLAN (1998) *** 1/2

Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Scott B. Smith, based on his novel. Photography, Alar Kivilo. Editing, Arthur Coburn and Eric L. Beason. Production design, Patrizia Von Brandenstein.  Music, Danny Elfman. Cast: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Gary Cole, Becky Ann Baker, Chelcie Ross, Jack Walsh .Produced by James Jacks and Adam Schroeder. A Paramount release. 120 minutes. R (violence, language)

That boy from Michigan, Sam Raimi, made his first films at 18 and 19, became a cult-director at 23 with The Evil Dead (1982), and has not stopped directing, writing, producing and acting in movies and TV to this day. He specializes in  horror flicks, cartoonish or comic bookish, and in parodies of other genres. Raimi is not on the roster of great American filmmakers --like his friends the Coen Brothers with whom he has often collaborated-- is not everybody's cup of tea--certainly not of mature audiences with "taste"-- but does have a following.  Now, at the old age of 40, Sam has made the pants just right with a gripping, serious, psycho-sociological thriller, realistically made and acted.

A Simple Plan (ASP) is an ironic title for a sadly complicated imbroglio. Hank (Bill Paxton) works at a feed-fertilizer store in  an anonymous small Upper Midwest town. (The film was shot in Delano, Minnesota, with some footage in northern Wisconsin when in search of ideal snow conditions). His wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) is nine months pregnant with their first child. The couple is beautifully affectionate.

Hank's older brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) seems to be not quite all there. He lives alone in a rather dilapidated house, has no fixed employment, is regularly on relief. His buddy and drinking companion, bluff Lou (Brent Briscoe),  is often out of work, deeply in debt, and something of a town drunk.

On New Year's Eve, the three men are brought together by a visit to Hank and Jake's father's grave. In a wildlife reserve area they stumble on the wreck of a small plane hidden by snow and ice. The pilot is dead. A bag contains four million four hundred thousand dollars.

What would you do in this situation? Lou says keep it: "It's the American Dream in a damn gym bag." Jacob, a follower and no leader, acquiesces. Hank hesitates. I quote from memory: "The American Dream is to work for money, not to steal it." But still...

They figure out that all signs (the absence of news about a plane having disappeared, etc.) point to a stash of illegal money, no doubt from drugs. Hank is swayed, moves from ethics to a strategically simple plan. Keep the money, wait and see what happens, divide it when the time is ripe. He insists that he will keep the bundle and that no one will mention it to anyone else. So the first thing he does is to take it home... and tell Sarah.

Her reactions rapidly escalate from the right thing to do to more elaborate "keep it" schemes. She reinforces her opinions by sending away for papers (she works in the local library) which prove that this is ransom money for an heiress abducted by a gang that left many dead people behind.

This is where my plot-telling ends. What follows is an exponentially growing mess, excellently paced, rightly devoid of the humor that Raimi is partial to (as well as his friends the Coens in their films, including the snowy Fargo), strong in the protagonists' characterizations (with Sarah becoming a sort of junior Lady Macbeth), unexpected yet credible turns as the "perpetrators" inexorably paint themselves into a corner.

The tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive is here the damnedest and tangledest possible. Hank bears the largest moral burden of all. A smart man, the only college graduate in the group (and in town, I suppose), he has scruples. But the concatenation of events, so much money, and his companions' errors make him lose his head.

From the start, this is a bloody affair. It keeps getting bloodier, but not gratuitously so. From the start, this very noir ("black" in French) movie set in gorgeous expanses of white, virgin snow, as it imparts the feeling of an inexorable march to catastrophe. It does this with cold, believable, suspenseful and gripping logic. In some ways, ASP evokes the doomed heist of a very different thriller, The Killing, an early Stanley Kubrick gem.

ASP is neither a simple nor a simple-minded story, nor escapism, fun, or entertainment. It's painful and depressing to watch, but then this is real cinema and a corrective to the no-brainers that make up 99 percent of film production.

There's a perfect match between images and events, tempo and psyches. There's also a growing depth and awareness in family relations, with revelations about the brothers' parents and Jake's seemingly simple mind.

Major credit goes to the first-time script-writer for adapting his own book so cleverly. Major credit goes to the production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein (one of the best) for her discreetly eloquent sets. The music score is unobtrusive.

Cinematographer Alar Kivilo-- about whom I knew nothing and found little more than a fine track-record almost entirely in TV-- is a revelation.  He does wonders with splendidly photographed snow on the land and as it falls (no easy feat); with tricky focusing and changes of focus that keep the foreground sharp (e.g. the ever-present crows perched on trees) as well as the background; with economical, meaningful camera positions and movements; with tracking shots of animals.

Symbolism runs through the picture: a beautiful fox killing chickens (a literary allusion to D.H.Lawrence?); the leitmotiv of blackbirds observing the scene (an allusion to Poe's Raven or to Hitchcock's The Birds?); others too, but they don't come at you and hit you with obviousness,

The performers are all perfect. Billy Bob Thornton has the most showy, odd part, but there's veristic quality acting by everyone, including the smaller roles:  the ambiguous, friendly yet mysterious sheriff (Chelcie Ross); he equally cool Gary Cole who shows a different kind of cool in the current comedy Office Space.

Verisimilitude does get strained a bit, but rarely. I wonder how Sarah, at work, in the boondocks, gets the newspapers so quickly. (Yes, this is the information, fax and internet age, but still...) Why is college graduate Hank working in a feed store?  Small things like that.

ASP also wins is in its choice of subject. Greed, the title of a great Hollywood classic of 1925, could be the title of this film too, and of the heading of millions of news items --since the profit motive rules the world.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel