Greed in the Heartland
Main Cast: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda
Director: Sam Raimi
Found money. What an amazing concept. You do no work, you sacrifice nothing, you just get money for no reason. Even things like the lottery don’t really count, because you have to make that small investment, have that small hope that you may win the jackpot. No, I’m talking about truly found money. The kind that just falls in your lap like a gift from an anonymous cosmic benefactor. Could anything be better? No more financial worries, no obligations, no nothing. Rich with no strings attached. The best of all worlds. Except for one thing. One little detail to remember before you live happily ever after. Just one little saying: ”The love of money is the root of all evil”. Even in the heartland.
Hank (Bill Paxton) is sort of living the old fashioned American dream. He has a job that pays pretty well, a house and a wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), about to have their first child. He’s well liked in their small Midwestern town. Things are good. Like everyone, Hank has some baggage. He has a brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton). Jacob isn’t the sharpest crayon in the box. Perhaps not technically retarded, Jacob is nonetheless naive and unreliable. He doesn’t currently have a job, is socially inept and drinks too much with his friend Lou (Brent Brisco). Hank and Jacob visit the grave of their deceased parents together once each year. This particular year, Lou is along for the ride, despite the fact that Hank finds him relatively repugnant.
On the way home, Jacob swerves to avoid hitting a fox, runs into a pole, and his dog bolts into a nature preserve. In search of the dog, the three men stumble across the wreckage of a small plane. Everywhere, the ravens caw, the snow is deep. The woods are good at holding their secrets. This particular secret comes complete with a dead pilot and 4.4 million dollars in cash. 4.4 million dollars. What to do? Do they call the police? Do they turn the money in? Or do they hesitate, wondering if this is that most elusive of beasts, found money? What if they keep it? Surely there must be a way to figure out if this is possible. Surely they can’t squander this most rare of opportunities. Surely they can come up with a plan. It’ll be simple. Yes. A Simple Plan. ”We can make this work”
But there can be no such thing. Not when there is money involved, and not when there are human beings involved. Brutal strength and dismal weakness are in abundant supply as the group deals with one of the most ugly of human conditions – greed. The plan does seem simple at first. But there are always factors for which no one accounts. Those
things need to be dealt with. And how the characters deal with these variables ultimately determines their fates. Hank is the most reluctant to try and keep the money, his first instinct is to turn it in. Lou wants to keep it. Jacob is easily swayed, seemingly having little will of his own, depending on the others to decide the best course of action. Sarah is also reluctant. But first impressions can be fatally misleading, and greed can corrupt and render unrecognizable the stoutest of souls. Writer Scott B. Smith (who adapted his novel for the screenplay) spins this tale like a master – we watch spellbound as the story unwinds to its inevitable conclusion. Inevitable in hindsight, of course. The story is tight and tense, logical and tragic. The characters are both original and familiar. These are the people we know, but in a situation most of us will never see. One of the most immediately impressive things about the film is how, on some level, we understand the actions these people take. We think ourselves immune from such base behavior, but then again, so do they. Certainly we wouldn’t go to any tragic lengths over money. Would we?
The performances here are fairly solid across the board, but Paxton and Thornton make the movie. Paxton shows some of the skill he would unleash three years later in Frailty as the contented everyman who somehow finds himself deeply involved in something completely outside his experience. This is the character that undergoes the most
profound changes throughout the film, yet Paxton plays him with great subtlety. All the way through, we can still see that everyman that goes to the mill to work every day, and comes home to his wife and child. Thornton is the soul of the film. Jacob is rather dim, yet has his savant moments where he has more clarity than any of the “smart” people around him. Two years after he vaulted onto the world stage with Slingblade, Thornton gives what I consider one of his finest performances to date. He never lets Jacob slide into caricature, never plays him as a child in a man’s body. He’s as complex as any of the other characters, arguably more so, and he’s played with so many layers that he remains the real center of the story even though Paxton is certainly the “lead”. Fonda as Sarah is a little over the top. She spits out her lines with a little too much effort, and her character doesn’t come together as well as the others. She isn’t as easy to relate to because she’s the one who is so clearly “acting”. It isn’t a bad performance; it only sticks out in the face of the stellar work of Paxton and Thornton.
There is one more character in this movie. It isn’t one we get to appreciate very often, as it’s rarely used to good effect.
That character is the setting. Filmed in St. Paul, Minnesota and a small neighboring town, as well as in the north woods of Wisconsin, A Simple Plan is infused with winter in all its glory. This isn’t pretend Hollywood snow, and it isn’t winter played out on a sound stage. Photographer Alar Kivilo captures the brilliant whites of a tree covered with frozen snow, the effortful, visible breath of winter exertion, the awkward, uncertain gait of someone trudging through frozen woodland. The cars are dirty with winter salt and grime; the people bundled against the cold and wind. And throughout the wooded scenes are the ravens, the scavengers of winter. At a time when the woods should be a quiet, muffled place, the ravens man their posts as the opportunists. Not unlike our group of characters. These seem like small details, things that shouldn’t matter that much, but they do. They give the story a palpable sense of place. This tale could only have taken place in the rural Midwest. The country simply isn’t right for anywhere else. Director Sam Raimi uses that location, makes us feel the cold, hear the crunch of the frozen fields, understand how a single snowfall can transform an entire area, making the obvious vanish.
The performances and photography are under laid with a gorgeous score (Danny Elfman) that soars at the places of greatest drama, yet is at its most effective in the quieter moments. This is where the minor key, slightly dissonant music gently imparts a feeling of general discomfort – of waiting for the other shoe to drop. This soft layer of dread adds immeasurably to the overall tension in the film.
A Simple Plan is a beautifully filmed, tightly written cautionary tale of human weakness in the face of greed. Outstanding performances by Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton add greatly to the success of the film, giving faces to the basest of failings and the wounds of conscience. The addition of a winter setting rich in detail and full of its own “character” and a lovely and haunting score pulls the whole thing together into a glorious tangled web. Makes you wonder just how benevolent that comic benefactor of found money may really be. 4 stars.
photos by Rita Molnar, Vanessa Lua and Ed Schipul