Simplicity is one of the most difficult things to get right, but A Simple Plan demonstrates beautifully how it’s done. Employing a visual style that’s stripped down to the bare essentials, director Sam Raimi sets the stage for a devastating Pandora’s box morality tale of submerged desires.
On New Year’s Eve, Hank Mitchell’s hometown — a sleepy Midwest farming community — is blanketed by a snowfall that makes it seem even more hushed and isolated. But overall, Hank (Bill Paxton) considers himself a "happy man," with a white-collar job, a tidy house and a loving wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), who’s about to give birth to their first child. He feels a grudging sense of obligation to his unemployed and slow-on-the-uptake older brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and even though no one else is around to observe him with Jacob and his happily drunk friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), the ill-at-ease Hank can’t hide his obvious embarrassment.
In a few swift and seemingly effortless strokes, screenwriter Scott Smith — adapting his 1994 novel — establishes the dynamics of success and failure within this small town, then explodes them when Hank, Jacob and Lou stumble upon an airplane containing a dead pilot and a bag full of more money than they ever expected to see in their lives.
The desire to possess that money is at the heart of A Simple Plan, but it’s not simply about greed. In pitch-perfect performances, the cast gradually reveals the true nature of people who establish facades and convenient relationships to maintain comfortable, well-ordered lives.
With its snowbound setting and hints at a kidnapping gone awry, A Simple Plan merits comparisons to the Coen brothers’ Fargo. But there’s something even more insidiously creepy at work in Sam Raimi’s film, which doesn’t deal so much with cops versus criminals as expose the transgressor lurking inside even people who are convinced of their own goodness. —Serena Donadoni