This film provoked a strong emotional response in me. The doomed scheme, the naïve players, and the sad, twisted music filled me with dread and made me squirm in my seat.
A Simple Plan is a neo-noir, a crime film whose downward spiral is a black hole from which there is no escape. Scripted by Scott Smith, it was based on his novel. It starts with a forlorn Bill Paxton explaining in voiceover, “I was a happy man.” Past tense.
Hank (Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton, who is superb in the role), and their friend Louis (Brent Briscoe) are in their truck on a secluded road. It is the middle of winter and snow covering the fields and the roads blends with the nondescript white sky. A fox crosses their path and Louis and Jacob insist on stopping to track it down.
The three come across an old plane crash. The plane is covered in snow and the pilot is long dead. Further exploration reveals a duffel bag full of money, piles of stacks of hundred dollar bills. A quick debate reveals only two options: report the money to the authorities, or split the money three ways.
Jacob and Louis, being a little dimmer than Hank, want to split the money three ways and become instant millionaires. Hank sees that their plan won’t work if someone finds the plane and knows the money is missing. He agrees to split the money, but only if they agree that nobody collects a share until after the plane is found. If the money is missed, they can always turn it in or burn it. If nobody mentions the money in connection with the plane, they will keep it.
Hank takes the money to his place for safe keeping and almost instantly, the paranoia creeps into their lives. What about the footprints in the fresh snow? Can Hank be trusted? Can they keep their stories straight? The paranoia leads to mistakes, as it always does in this type of film. The mistakes lead to attempted corrections, which in turn lead to more mistakes. The downward spiral is as fascinating as it is foreboding.
Several factors add to the doomed, queasy feeling of this film. Danny Elfman’s amazing score should have been nominated for an Oscar. The orchestra plays a sad, folksy tune, but the strings are about a quarter-step out of tune, adding a gut-wrenching twang to the soundtrack. The bleak, lifeless, wintery setting and cinematography are reminiscent of Fargo. The omnipresence of crows presage death and disease.
In addition, the characters are well-formed. Jacob and Louis are best friends from high school. They haven’t done much with their lives since then. They are not too bright, a bit too greedy, and far too mistrustful of each other to be likely to pull off their heist. Hank is a little smarter, but he hasn’t escaped the small, poor farming community he was born in. All in all, they are a sad bunch, and perfect for this film.
With so many things done so well, you’d think this would be an excellent film. But like Pleasantville, it crumbles under the pressure of critical thought.
For one thing, Hank (the college graduate) and Jacob (his slow-witted brother) are too completely different to be brothers. The gap in intelligence between them cannot be explained by college attendance, as the film suggests. The plot required most of the characters to be dumb, but a smarter character was needed for contrast and leadership, and so the college educated brother was introduced.
For another, the practical problems of spending hundred-dollar bills in a small town was never brought up, even though other problems were mentioned and dealt with. Perhaps the point was that none of them were smart enough to think of it. Still, the movie should have addressed it. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of screenwriter Smith to be one step ahead of the audience. I was disappointed to have thought of something that the characters and the film hadn’t.
And finally, the film’s great tragic ending — the fate of the brothers — was not justified. After dozens of other problems were resolved with great desperation and tenacity, the film’s final solution should have been even more desperate and tenacious. Barring that, it should have been a great sigh of resignation. It was tragic and moving, but it was also easy and premature.
A Simple Plan is on many “ten best” lists, and I’m glad for it. I really enjoyed the film, particularly the way it moved me and made me squirm. But there were too many problems for it to be a really great film.