Movies: A Simple Plan (1998)

A while back, I read and reviewed Scott B. Smith’s 1993 novel A Simple Plan, which has got to be one of the best thrillers ever written. While I was reading it, I remembered that there had been a very good film adaptation of it, but I hadn’t seen it for such a long time that I thought it was about time for a revisit, especially while the book was still fairly fresh in my mind.

The movie came out in 1998, though its torturous journey to the screen is kind of amazing to learn about, especially considering how awesome the final product turned out. Director and producer Mike Nichols had bought the rights to Smith’s novel before it was even published, with a view to directing it himself, but after he left the project, the script (adapted by Smith from his own novel) changed hands multiple times, with everyone from Ben Stiller, John Dahl, and John Boorman variously on board to helm the movie at one point or another. Eventually, directorial duties fell to Sam Raimi, who had been looking for a more grounded, character-driven story after becoming best known for his more stylized horror and science fiction films, like the Evil Dead movies and Darkman.

The cast too went through numerous changes and upheavals, with Nicholas Cage set to play the lead at one stage, and Anne Heche considered for the role of Sarah, the main character’s wife. At last, though, the absolutely stellar cast we see on the screen came together: Bill Paxton as Hank Mitchell, Billy Bob Thornton as his brother Jacob, Bridget Fonda as his wife Sarah, and Brent Briscoe as Lou. Billy Bob Thornton, justifiably, got an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance, and though Bill Paxton was apparently in the running for a Best Actor nod, he sadly didn’t get one. Scott Smith was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

Despite almost universal critical acclaim and a laundry list of awards and nominations, the movie unfortunately underperformed at the box office after its limited release in late 1998, not even making its modest $17 million budget back. This is mind-blowing to me, because A Simple Plan, like the book that started it all, is one of the most perfect crime thrillers ever made, a gut-wrenching escalation of suspense that never lets up for a second and has easily some of the best acting performances in film that year.

As the screenplay was adapted by the book’s author (cut down to two hours from an initial draft that would have run four-and-a-half hours long), the plot of the movie is very similar to that of the book, with only a few changes. The setting is moved from Ohio in the novel to Minnesota in the movie because of the necessity of shooting in a lot of snow, and a couple of situations that were in the book—such as Hank losing a great deal of money in a condominium sale scam, the gruesome murder of a convenience store clerk, and the fate of Hank and Sarah’s baby—were omitted, both for time and because Sam Raimi wanted to soften the character of Hank somewhat and make him more sympathetic than he was in the novel. The rest of the plot, though, follows the book very closely.

The story is set in a small town, where Hank—who is significantly more educated than most of the other residents—works as an accountant in a feed store. His pregnant wife Sarah works at the town library. Hank’s brother Jacob, who has some learning disabilities, is unemployed, and spends most of his dead-end life getting drunk with his somewhat obnoxious (and also unemployed) friend Lou, who Hank can barely stand. Hank and Jacob’s father has died recently (I believe it was both parents in the book), and Jacob lives in the family’s farm house, hoping one day to be able to become a farmer like his father before him.

One day, while Hank, Jacob, and Lou are returning from visiting the cemetery, a fox runs in front of their truck and runs them off the road in the snow, at which point Jacob’s dog, Mary Beth, heads into the woods in pursuit. While the three men are searching for the dog, they come across a crashed plane partially buried in a snowbank. Upon investigating the scene, they discover that the pilot of the plane is dead, and also that the plane contains a duffel bag stuffed with $4.4 million in $100 bills.

Hank is immediately (and wisely) wary and wants to give the money to the authorities; this money belongs to someone, he reasons, and therefore someone will eventually come looking for it. Jacob and Lou, though, both of whom are more desperate for money than Hank is, argue that it’s likely the money was from a drug deal or some other illegal activity, and that probably no one even knows it’s here.

Not long after, Hank succumbs to their persuasion, and they all decide to keep the money, but on one condition: Hank insists that he keep hold of it; that no one spends any of it or breathes a word of it to anyone, not even their wives; and that, if after the plane is found following the spring thaw, no one mentions any money being missing, then the three men will equally divide the loot and quietly leave town separately so that no one is ever the wiser. If someone does mention the missing money, Hank says, then he’ll burn the cash so they won’t get busted in case someone comes looking for it.

Jacob and Lou are reluctant to concede to these conditions, but they ultimately agree after Hank tells them if they don’t, he’s just going to call the cops and report the incident and no one will get jack shit.

The problems begin to arise almost immediately, though. Even though Hank explicitly said that he wasn’t going to tell his wife about the money and that Lou better not either, Hank’s literal first words out of his mouth upon coming home that evening are along the lines of, “Hey honey, what would you do if you found a random bag of probably untraceable drug money?” Naturally, Sarah says she would do the right thing and turn it in, but she pretty quickly changes her tune when he actually dumps the piles of cash on the table in front of her. Sarah instantly goes all in on the subterfuge, in fact, throwing out suggestions that will ostensibly improve their chances of getting away with the theft.

One of these suggestions—which actually sounds kind of reasonable on its face, but ends up having terrible consequences—is to return a small portion of the money, specifically half a mil, to the plane. That way, Sarah reasons, if someone is looking for the plane, they won’t suspect that someone took any money, since such a big chunk of change was left there and no robber in their right mind would do such a thing. Hank actually does go to do this, but in the course of the task, various circumstances unfold that tragically leads to a murder, which inevitably leads to a cover-up, which leads to even more dire consequences later on.

From that point forward, the plot begins to thicken big time as these three men (and two women, because yes, Lou told his wife about the money too) try to keep the existence of the money a secret, and in the pursuit of this endeavor, develop deepening mistrust of one another’s motives, and an alarming erosion of their former morality. The best thing about A Simple Plan—both the book and the film—is the steadily ratcheting horror of it, the way the audience is forced to watch helplessly as formerly decent people lower themselves to the worst actions imaginable in order to keep their hands on the loot. It’s gripping because it’s so insidiously believable; while it might not play out exactly this way in real life, while it’s happening in the movie, you absolutely buy into it, and the hell of it is that you can see at every step along the way how Hank and the others slowly paint themselves into a corner of their own making, constantly having to do more and more monstrous things in order to retain the money as well as hide their previous crimes from the world.

Even though the character of Hank in the movie is much more likeable and sympathetic than the Hank from the novel—who did several really terrible things that were left out of the film entirely—he’s still absolutely a villain, albeit a heartbreaking one, because he seemed like such a nice, ordinary man at the beginning, but the promise of wealth and security straight up turned him evil. The same applies to his wife Sarah, who at first was appalled at the idea of keeping the money, but eventually became so invested in it that her cursedly reasonable-sounding suggestions and plotting made her just as culpable for the resulting shitshow as Hank was. At its heart, A Simple Plan is a morality tale, of course, but watching it unfold is just so enthralling, particularly because all the acting is so goddamn good. I think these might be my favorite performances by Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda, and is in my opinion one of the two best Bill Paxton performances of his career (the other being his turn in 2001’s Frailty, a movie he also directed).

The film is wrenching, riveting, and horrifying, and plays out almost like a Greek tragedy, where everything is fated from the beginning and nothing can be done to change it; the characters all become slaves to their actions, with one evil deed necessitating the next, worse one. And the biggest gut punch of all comes after all of the madness is over; although Hank and Sarah at least return to some semblance of their previous lives, they now have to live with the consequences of all they’ve done, and deal with the fact that their formerly satisfactory existences have now been forever tainted by greed and by the knowledge of what they did in service to that greed.

While I will say that the book is far more brutal than the film, just in terms of how bad shit gets, I understand why Sam Raimi chose to tone down the events for the movie a little, and I think it was the right decision. Not only would some of the more fucked-up incidents in the book have made the movie less believable (although they work totally fine on the page), I also think making Hank more relatable and slightly less evil made the film much more emotionally affecting.

Both book and movie are absolutely worth your time if you like thrillers; although they’re very similar plot-wise, I would unreservedly recommend both, as the tone in both media is slightly different, and each of them brings a bit of a distinct spin on the same story.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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