A Simple Plan is a thriller of uncommon resonance. There are guns, murder and
betrayal, but Sam Raimi’s film is really about happiness and its relation to
money. For most, happiness and money is a struggle of career and family, habits
and foresight. But what if you were to simply find a gym bag full of drug money?
And what if you found this treasure with a relative and mutual friend who you
just couldn’t trust? This is the ‘what if’ conceit that will have you contemplating
your own reaction to such a crazy, life changing dilemma.

Set in a rural Minnesota town, the three men who stumble upon the cash are
Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), an upstanding mill worker; Jacob (Billy Bob
Thornton), his obtuse yet benevolent sibling; and Lou (Brent Briscoe), a
pugnacious barfly with a chip on his shoulder.

a simple plan castScott B. Smith’s lean script establishes the group’s fractures with nuance and
naturalism. We see that Jacob is so dimly agreeable he’ll make a friend out of
anyone, especially a local hick like Lou. Hank, however, is far removed from the
pair. He’s articulate, responsible and starting a family with his young wife, Sarah
(Bridget Fonda), but it is his college degree that really separates him. Naturally,
Hank’s education is a threat to the insecure Lou, who mentions the time Hank
used the term ‘insinuating throw’, “Remember that? You could have just said
‘hint’. But no, you had to put on airs, show us all them fancy words you know.”
These contentions may seem petty, but they are the sinister groundwork for
what becomes an extremely dangerous dynamic.

Shortly after Lou’s remark about hints and insinuating throws, they find four and
a half million dollars stashed aboard a downed Cessna in a remote corner of the
woods. After much bemusement and consternation, it is agreed that Hank will
keep the money until spring, when the authorities will find the plane among the
melting snow. They predict that because it’s dirty money no one will come
looking for it, in which case the three men will split the cash and leave town,
earning over a million each. This is their simple plan, yet it unravels within mere
days, sending their lives into a spiral of manipulation and murder.

a simple-planIn 1998, before the box office triumphs of Spider-Man, director Sam Raimi was
noted for the gore and slapstick of his Evil Dead trilogy, the first of which was a
masterpiece of low-budget ingenuity. While Raimi and Bruce Campbell made a
horror icon in Ash Williams, the director’s work had been far from character driven. A Simple Plan, therefore, was uncharted territory, and Raimi knocked it
out of the park. According to Billy Bob Thornton, this was because Raimi’s a
‘great collaborator’ who ‘knows how to defer’, and what a team he had to defer

Adapting from his 1993 novel, Scott B. Smith’s rich dialogue serves both the
themes of happiness and the mechanics of their extreme, criminal situation. The
film’s intense drama always rings true because it’s grounded by its characters,
especially Hank, whose opening narration recites his father’s ingredients for
happiness, “a wife you love, a decent job, friends and neighbours who like and
respect you”. Hank concludes that he had all that without even realising, and that
is the problem of existence – we get what we want and then we want more.

In the mean time, we are burdened by the drudgery of work, the labour of making ends meet, the indignity of being answerable to someone you don’t like. We see, for
instance, how Hank must prostrate himself to leave work early, citing ‘family
obligations’. Sarah, too, is beckoned to the front desk of her library with a stern,
“Can you come here… please?” Yet Hank and Sarah are living the American
Dream compared to Jacob, the film’s most compelling character and

a simple plan billy bob thortonJacob’s an ignoramus, no doubt, yet he is a not a Gomer Pyle stock character. He
has flashes of sense, wisdom and even cunning, but what really sticks with you is
his sadness. It’s a character that some actors would ham up (see John Malkovich
in Of Mice and Men), but Billy Bob Thornton assumes the role with pathos and
sensitivity. There is no better example of this than when Jacob shares a private
moment with Hank, discussing his failure with women, “God, Hank, I’ve never
even kissed a girl.” He wonders if the money will finally attract female attention,
“If being rich will change that, I’m all for it. I just wanna feel it, you know? I don’t
care if it’s because of the money.” Jacob says this with no resentment or anger,
just an affecting wistfulness; it’s a moment that sends an audience into silence
and holds them there.

Then there’s a fiery exchange between Hank and Sarah, who proves to be most
scheming advocate for keeping the money. As Hank panics about the money, she
asks him a damning series of questions, “Is that what you think you want? Walking off to the feed store every morning for the next 30 years… And me. What about me? Spending the rest of my life, eight hours a day, with a fake smile plastered on my face checking out books? And then coming home to cook dinner for you, the
same meals over and over again, whatever the week’s coupons will allow.
Only going to restaurants for special occasions, and even then having to
watch what we order.”

It’s a scathing rant that attacks not Hank but life itself; lamenting how chronically
underwhelming it can be for us, the human being, an animal perhaps too sentient
and complex for its own good. Quite frankly, A Simple Plan can be a bit of a
downer. But remember, it’s not all heavy character drama. It’s a bona fide thriller
that will cause your teeth to grind, your toes to curl, and your brain to consider,
“What would I do?”