A Simple Plan ★★★★★

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through A Simple Plan that is so simple in its conceit, yet so masterful in execution, that this mere cautionary genre tale of two brothers, a bag of money, and the wages of greed, is elevated into greatness. In it Hank (Bill Paxton) enlists his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) to coax a phony confession out of their drunk and uncontrollable friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) for a murder that he did not commit so that they can tape record it and hold it over his head should he be a little too loud about the millions of dollars they found within the nearby wreckage of a small airplane. Everyone has crystal clear motives at the onset, yet out of nowhere, and with more irony than would ever be expected from a storyline such as this, Jacob pulls a double reversal, bringing the underlying subtext between the two brothers into the foreground, and allowing what comes next to extend organically from character first, and logical story progression second. It is almost Shakesperean in its scope, laying out a trajectory both psychological and material that can only lead to tragedy.

The scene achieves something else too. It is the point of realizing that all along we have been treated to scenes like this. Every scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with one character or another arcing ever so slightly as he/she is convinced or forced to act a certain way. The amount and depth of drama mined in scene after scene of this film is almost exhausting, especially when there is no reason on Earth for it to be in a film like this. A potboiler in every sense of the word, first-time screenwriter Scott B. Smith, adapting his own novel, marries impeccable craft and storytelling to create a play that, if there were any justice in the world, would be studied in every introductory screenwriting class in the country. One of my rules for a perfect screenplay is based around the necessity of each and every scene, and there is not one extraneous scene here; just try and find one, take it out, and watch how fast the train derails. If every Hollywood film exploited the genius in this script we’d all have alot more fun in movie theatres.

Of course it wouldn’t be the film that it is without the director, and Sam Raimi, heretofore unmentioned, deserves some of the credit. I am a long-time champion of his, from his Evil Dead roots, to the Costner vehicle For Love Of The Game, and while his usual visual palette is severely tempered here, he succeeds admirably by adhering to the first rule of filmmaking, just shoot the script. As impossible as it is to hide a bad screenplay in great direction, it is equally just as easy to ruin a great one. And Raimi is smart enough not to overburden the film with heavy-handed visuals and unnecessary camera movement. Overtly static, Raimi does relish certain moments, like when Hank dumps the bag of money on the table and the bills slowly drown his wife (Bridget Fonda) out of the frame, but they all serve to emphasize the subtext; who needs crane shots and deep focus when you have Smith’s words and Thornton’s presence?

And what a presence it is. Billy Bob Thornton is the best he has ever been (yes, including Sling Blade) as Jacob, a character who on paper would be referred to as the dumb brother, but on screen exudes a pathos and humility that invites comparison to Lenny from Of Mice And Men. Thornton is almost too good, imbuing us with compassion for him after his final sacrifice rather than for Hank, who on paper was probably the intended target. That their final scene together works is a testament to Thornton’s method acting, never once betraying a twist that would have been mere mechanics in the hand of any other actor. The stuttered line readings through unmoving lips, the lasting impression of his squinting through gigantic rectangular glasses, his awkward presence in scenes and sheer occasional grotesqueness further widens the divide between Jacob and Hank, a subtext that builds with each and every scene without us even realizing it. It is the role of his life, and one that to this day I have not seen him even come close to topping. After seeing the film try to imagine any other actor in the role. For the great ones it is not possible.

Most of our life that is spent in a dark theatre is spent under the spell of the genre film. For the most part they go unrecognized during Oscar time because they don’t go far enough, either by design or desire. They don’t set out to change lives, or provoke, or elevate the bankability of their cast, and they are rarely remembered shortly after having seen them. But when one comes along that proves every bit as pure an expression of the ability and craft of moviemaking as the timeless classics that have already secured their position in film history, special notice must be taken. A Simple Plan is simply one of the greatest screenplays ever written, and as a thriller, is a perfect alternative when the mood just cannot tolerate the visual excesses of Hitchcock. And by no means does that make it any less brilliant.