Published December 1, 1998
I tried very hard to like A Simple Plan, written by Scott B.Smith and directed by Sam (Evil Dead) Raimi, but I was only partly successful. The movie seems to have been heavily influenced by Fargo, right down to the vast and snowy prairie landscapes and the unexpectedly satisfying moralism of the ending, and, insofar as it is, like Fargo, a blow struck against Hollywood’s prevailing nihilism, I welcome it. But it doesn’t have Fargo’s subtlety or cleverness or its painterly visual sense. More seriously, I don’t think that the Simple Plan’s ending quite justifies itself. It depends upon two extravagant, even self-consciously cinematic gestures, neither of which, I thought, manages to get even close to believability, given what we know of the two characters that perform them.
Up until that point in the proceedings, however, the story it has to tell is a compelling one, and the narrative energy and well-wrought characterization with which it is told certainly makes it a film worth seeing. It concerns the discovery by two mid-western yokels, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Lou (Brent Briscoe), and Hank (Bill Paxton), the college-educated brother of Jacob, of a downed light aircraft in a remote and snowy forest. On board are the dead and partially decomposed body of the pilot, being pecked at by carrion crows, and a gym bag containing $4.4 million in hundred dollar bills. Like all the best morality plays on celluloid, it presents us with a situation that all but cries out to us, “What would you do?”
At first, Hank is the voice of reason and social responsibility, insisting that they must inform the police, while the two yokels urge him to join with them in keeping it. “It’s the American dream in a goddamn gym bag,” says Lou, but Hank points out that “You work for the American dream, you don’t steal it.” It is clear that the other two rather look up to him, even if they also resent him for being better educated and therefore having more opportunity than they do, and they will probably do what he tells them to do. But instead of insisting on what he obviously knows to be right, Hank yields to their entreaties to be allowed to keep the money — on the condition that he, Hank, be given sole charge of the stash, to hold it for a year until he can determine, all by himself, whether or not they will be allowed to keep it. This stipulation they go along with, since Hank says it is the only way he will consent to anything other than an immediate call to the police.
Hank insists that Lou not even tell his wife about the money, though he doubts that he will be able to keep the secret. Lou extracts a promise from him that he will not tell his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda) either, but no sooner does he get home than he starts to hint about his big discovery. This is mostly because he wants some reassurance from Sarah that his conscience need not trouble him. At first when the thing is merely hypothetical, she takes the same moral line that he had taken with his two companions. “I wouldn’t take it,” she says. “That’s just me, but I wouldn’t.” But as soon as she learns that there really is a pile of money to which they might help themselves, she becomes more of a schemer to keep it than he does. She is also clearly the cleverer, or at least the more devious of the two, and she tells Hank that they have to be careful from now on: “We have to be thinking ahead all the time.”
And so they do, because things start going wrong with terrifying speed. Lou wants some money to pay off gambling debts and threatens to tell if he doesn’t get it. At Sarah’s urging, they decide to put some of the money back to throw off suspicion when the plane is found in the spring, but the unexpected threat of discovery makes them take desperate action. They find out that the money was to pay the ransom for a kidnap victim who was later killed, which makes the moral case for returning it all the stronger at a time when it is becoming more and more unthinkable to them that they should give up their expectations of it. “We can’t say it isn’t stealing anymore,” says Hank ruefully.
“It’s always been stealing, Hank,” says Sarah. “We just didn’t know who from.”
The three conspirators begin falling out among themselves. The two brothers gravitate to each other to exclude Lou, the outsider, but there are also tensions between them. Jacob wants to use the money to buy back their father’s farm. Hank knows that Jacob could not begin to farm the place by himself, but he is shamed into cooperation with his scheme because Jacob insists that their father’s bankruptcy, which led to his suicide, was owing to the sacrifices he had made to put him, Hank, through college. Also, Jacob’s rather pathetic stupidity is played up and makes Hank feel even more guilty. Meanwhile, Lou is threatening to blackmail the other two, and Sarah cooks up another one of her devious and dangerous schemes to shut him up. And then an FBI man, who may or may not be a real FBI man, turns up and starts asking questions.
As an illustration of the time-honored fictional principle that criminal greed only leads to misery and never to its promised happiness, this film is something of a throwback, as I have said. For this it deserves praise and a place among the two or three dozen best conservative movies of the year. But none of the major characters save Lou lives up to our expectations of them, and the moral ending ends up looking tacked on. Still, I suppose we should be grateful for any moral seriousness we can get from the movies these days.