Cold Cash

Chillyville: the icy schemers of Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan
Mall of America

Given the far-reaching, high-grossing rep of 1996's Fargo, you can hardly blame Minnesota film flacks for highlighting the similarities between that Oscar-nabbing dark horse and director Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan. Greed, treachery, and blowing snow are all essential to both films. Both were shot in and around the Twin Cities. According to outgoing governor Arne Carlson, they also reflect profound cultural investments in the local economy, even if some of Fargo's cartoonish doses of hometown flavor bordered on hicksploitation. "People are saying that [A Simple Plan] could win an Academy Award," the guv said matter-of-factly at a recent megamall preview screening. "And ya know, it just might!" (With no Siskel to counter his wannabe Ebert, Arne politely took his seat as the lights went dim.)

If the Coen Brothers gambled and won Oscars for the land o' lakes with ruthless wit and over-the-top vernacular, Raimi's snowy small-town fable is content to do much more with a lot less. Adapted for the screen by author Scott B. Smith, the story follows brothers Hank and Jacob Mitchell (Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton) along a vividly grim downward spiral, beginning with their accidental discovery of $4.4 million in an abandoned plane wreck. Hank, an upright husband and expectant father, preaches caution and initially wants to turn the mysterious dough over to the cops. Unkempt loser Jacob and his drinkin' buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) are dumbstruck by the dollar signs and insist on making off with it themselves on the hush-hush. ("It's the American Dream in a goddamned gym bag!" says Lou.) It doesn't take long for the devil on Hank's shoulder to overcome the angel; he gives in to his partners' simple whims and seizes custody of the ill-gotten fortune until things cool off.

Which, of course, they don't. What follows for these (un)lucky dogs might best be described--without giving away too many of the rich details--as a string of serious moral malfunctions. In spite of his level head and his best intentions, Hank can't make up for the sad missteps of his sketchy accomplices, nor is he truly prepared for the effects of opportunistic conspiracy on the rural Midwestern psyche. And soon enough, his amiable librarian wife (Bridget Fonda) falls prey to the same chilly dementia. By the time the weathered sheriff (Chelcie Ross) gets suspicious, the wide, friendly streets of Delano have begun to feel like a cesspool of paranoia and impending doom. Is money the only root of all this evil? Does innocence beget ignorance? Is the crime worth the cost?

Thankfully, neither Raimi nor Smith seems overly interested in turning these issues around on an audience. The script is too well-oiled and the performances too earnest to bother with that most irksome of moviegoer questions: "What would you do in this situation?" Instead, we crawl just far enough inside Hank's and Jacob's heads to smell the real ugliness of their predicament--even if its gravity seems downright ludicrous at times. As the cops question a terrified Hank about the downed plane, his pregnant pauses are impeccably nauseating. When Jacob rakes over the coals of his empty childhood, the relevance is immediate. Best of all, there's nary a "yah" or "you betcha" to be found.

Throughout the film, Raimi revisits a murder of crows perched in the woods. Their prescient view of the action, coupled with Danny Elfman's sinister score, borrows on a more universal mode of suspense. We know from frame one that this not-so-simple plan is bound to go brutally awry. What's key is the director's surprising affection for characters over caricatures, even if their words and their deeds don't surprise us one bit. Visually, the work is spare and unpretentious, conventional and effective. (The Evil Dead it ain't.) Regardless of whether or not Oscar gives a shit, Raimi may have birthed his most well-tempered thriller yet. And never mind the man's record as a Coen Brothers collaborator: This here flick is a subtle, welcome return to big screen chillyville, minus the wood-chipper.

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