Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, and Billy Bob Thornton in A Simple Plan (1998)


(director: Sam Raimi; screenwriter: Scott B. Smith, based on his novel; cinematographer: Alar Kivilo; editor: Arthur Coburn; cast: Bill Paxton (Hank), Billy Bob Thornton (Jacob), Bridget Fonda (Sarah), Brent Briscoe (Lou), Gary Cole (Baxter), Becky Ann Baker (Nancy), Chelcie Ross (Carl, The Sheriff), Jack Walsh (Tom Butler); Runtime: 121; Paramount Pictures; 1998)

“This is a strong, gut-wrenching, suspenseful film, one of the top ten of 1998.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is Raimi’s attempt to go mainstream with an art film thriller that might have an appeal to an audience that likes films with ideas. This wintry morality tale, with its bleak snowbound Midwestern atmosphere, reminds me a lot of Fargo. It examines the character of three small town locals who have no worldly experience, but have adjusted in one way or another to their lot in life.

Hank Mitchell (Paxton) figured out that it is the simple things in life that make one happy and he’s a lucky man because he got everything he basically wants: a pregnant wife that he loves, a respectable job in a feed store, a college education, a home, and the respect of the townspeople where he has lived all his life. His brother Jacob (Thornton) is his opposite. He’s a born loser. He can’t hold a job, has never even kissed a woman, drinks heavily, is uneducated and lacks all his wits; nevertheless, he gets by, satisfied to be living a rather plain and childlike life. Lou (Brent) is Jacob’s best friend. He is a married 40-year-old, the town drunk, a high school drop-out, unemployed, and of a volatile nature.

Things would change for these three forever when they find a crashed plane buried in the snow with 4.4 million dollars. The question arises what should they do with the money.

Hank, the responsible one of the trio, decides that they better come up with a plan, a simple plan. If they don’t want to turn the money over to the police, which is what he suggests they do, then they must agree to let him keep the money until the spring so that when the plane is discovered they will at least know if this is stolen money.

The trio are all perfectly cast. Billy Bob Thornton is brilliant in a supporting role, becoming caught with his brother in a series of bad judgments that results in the most terrible consequences for them.

Sarah (Bridget) makes the most of her small role as the rational wife who gets involved with her husband’s plans and connives to help him alter his plans. But as a result, her interference makes things only worse.

Things get completely out-of-control for the trio, as events turn bloody.

There is the great snow landscape shot in all its whiteness and the black crows surrounding the downed plane holding the money, where everything is symbolically seen as being either black-or-white.

The result of all the trio’s bungling, is that things are no longer simple. The “American Dream” is earned the easy way, via a suitcase full of money found in the snow. This becomes too much to handle and their natural greed overcomes them. All their character flaws become magnified, and they begin to get careless and talk too much of what they found. Jacob’s character ranges between vulnerability and menacing danger, as the bonds between brothers is tattered and redefined forever. The brothers must now face up to who they really are and how they will both relate to Lou. As even the placid and morally proper Hank has begun to spiral downward, almost lost in a nightmare he no longer has control of.

This is a strong, gut-wrenching, suspenseful film, one of the top ten of 1998. But the film is just lacking something, and I think that thing it needed was a breath of vagueness about what is morally right or wrong to remain on an even psychological/spiritual keel and not descend into a literal biblical morality play. Raimi did a superb visual job, carefully weaving a noirish tale without any heroes or apparent villains, a difficult task to do; but, one, that he succeeds in accomplishing without question. My feeling is that in due time we will look back at this film and wonder how it was overlooked by so many.