A Simple Plan
A snowy white wasteland as a background for dark doings, a blank void that suggests a larger moral void: this is becoming something of a trend in thrillers, as witness Fargo, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and now A Simple Plan. It’s a new breed of film noir — call it film blanc. A wintry climate can make a thriller seem more weighty: the characters have to move slower, each step producing a crisp, fatalistic crunch as they waddle through the snow towards their doom. In A Simple Plan, the usually hyperactive director Sam Raimi sustains a mood of unforgiving bleakness — the dark, gnarled trees bowed by snow, the vast white void waiting to gather up human frailties. Unfortunately, a thriller ultimately needs more than mood. Based on a bestseller by Scott Smith (who also wrote the script), A Simple Plan is about three guys who stumble across a major amount of cash and then slowly unravel as they clash over whether to keep it, who gets to hold onto it, what to do with it, and so on. That’s what it’s about; that’s all it’s about. The film is handsomely mounted but awfully familiar: crime does not pay, greed is bad, be sure your sins will find you out, what a tangled web we weave, etc. How many times have we seen this before? How many more times will we have to see it?
Raimi is working at a disadvantage, because he doesn’t have the material that would set this movie apart from a dozen other such thrillers. The three protagonists — brothers Hank (Bill Paxton) and Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) — are presented almost entirely in terms of how much they need the money. Any aspects of their characters that don’t “move the plot forward,” as they say in screenwriting classes, have been left out. Hank’s a decent guy, married (Bridget Fonda plays his wife) and with a baby on the way; Jacob is a dimwitted nerd (does anyone else prefer Billy Bob Thornton when he plays smart people?), and Lou is a grizzly drunk. I wasn’t especially interested in any of them, and the actors seem too tightly reined in; their underplaying echoes Raimi’s conscious underdirecting.
A Simple Plan lacks the local color and eccentricity of a movie like Fargo, which famously paused and gave valuable screen time to that Japanese guy who had nothing whatsoever to do with the story. I don’t want to compare this movie to Fargo too much, but the fact is that film noir can’t be done straight any more; we need all the quirks and distractions a director can toss our way, so that our attention isn’t focused completely on the mechanics of the plot. Raimi, the prankish maestro behind the Evil Dead trilogy, would seem the ideal filmmaker to throw us a few curves, but here his rambunctious instincts seem frozen stiff. So we watch the story unfold and we predict pretty much all of it, including the fate of a major character who has the misfortune to be played by an actor whose name isn’t above the title.
This isn’t a bad movie; Sam Raimi does it well, but why did he do it at all? Maybe, like a comedian who’s made millions laugh, Raimi now craves respectability — he wants to prove he can be serious. But except for a few moments, usually involving violence or its aftermath (there’s a macabre bit involving a corpse that seems to be moving), Raimi can’t do much with this stuff. He’s as locked into the film noir mechanism as the characters are. And there’s something a bit sad and self-deluding about a director trying to go respectable in what’s essentially snowbound pulp. It’s been done before, and Raimi doesn’t do it much differently or put his own stamp on it; he delivers it professionally, somberly, as if it were art-house material deserving of the utmost gravity. There was more art in any five minutes of Evil Dead 2 than in all of A Simple Plan. Sam Raimi doesn’t wear seriousness well; it wears him out.