But every man's a huntin' man in this good land of ours, so he's bound to have the opportunity at some point to shoot his brother, his bro's best friend, the best friend's wife and any other rascal between him and a lucky break. This movie goes right to the heart of temptation.
Writer Scott Smith has created a superb psychological portrait of the way class distinctions function among American males. Bill Paxton plays Hank, a nice guy with a college degree and a low-brow brother, Jacob, whose redneck drinking buddy is about all he's got in life. Billy Bob Thornton commits himself to the role of Jake with every ounce of nerdy primate simplicity he's capable of - and that's saying a lot. Yet Jake is not as simple as his brother Hank thinks. Billy Bob Thornton manages to make Jacob the moral center of the film, even though the script lays that burden on Bill Paxton's shoulders. Because poor Jacob only has his uneducated gut instincts to go by - and no college education to help him rationalize his actions - he knows what will make life unbearable, and when he crosses that line, he makes Hank do something we would never expect of nice-guy Hank - or any nice guy, for that matter. It makes a villain of Hank as surely as it makes a tragic figure of Jacob.
Director Sam Raimi, who has heretofore presided over some rather interesting but fx-laden genre films, understands the power of the narrative and gets his actors to provide the human inflections that make this story all too credible. With each snafu of their plan, we see one of the three men goof up - in a very predictable way, if Hank, the resident brain of the threesome, had only thought a little harder about things. That's the problem or the "moral" of the story: no matter how hard you think, your brain is never stronger than your weakest emotion - and that's what trips a man up every single time.
Some of the best scenes revolve around the three men trying to hang out together and stifle their distrust of each other. Jacob's buddy Lou suffers from a collapsed dignity and an acute hostility toward the more refined Hank. Brent Briscoe inhabits the role of Lou right down to the last scruffy burp, understanding that this man's salvation is his stupidity; he's got nothing to lose.
It's Hank who has the sharpest survival instincts. He's smart enough to out-smart the other two guys, but he can't outsmart the situation created by four million dollars in the woods outside a small town. Too many people could trip over that kind of treasure, so desperation is as certain as the melting snow that covers the plane that wrecked in the woods with a cargo that's not going to easily get lost. Folks are going to come looking for it. Our hero Hank has everything that the other two haven't got, but with so much at stake, his otherwise placid fingers also get trigger happy.
These are all nice guys when they're just sitting around knocking back some brewskies, but with four million dollars or a prison rap looming in their future, none of these nice guys intends to finish last. As in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," they are reduced to their survival instincts, and the law of the jungle takes over in the snow-clad woods of the northern Heartland.
As a metaphor, the snow provides the film with a visual correllative of the cover-up, something we've grown accustomed to on the nightly news. The ability of the filmmakers to turn that into an immediate and plausible story to people like us is nothing less than amazing. It's as good as the best John Ford or Frank Capra film at simply telling a tale as a parable.
To be sure, the tale is brought up to date, but because small towns in America still have the character of being at the end of a lonely road, the psychology of need and temptation works as well as it ever did. Hank's wife, Sarah (played by Bridget Fonda as a thrifty little homemaker turned Lady Macbeth), says it best when she provides her husband with his best alibi, "Nobody would believe a guy like you could do what you've just done."
And yet we believe, because Raimi has framed the tale with the image of the black birds of prey fluttering nervously through the solid white landscape. It's as pungent an image as a haiku about a raven waiting for his prey to emerge at the sure-footed pace of the melting snow, giving the errant human time enough to splatter the landscape in blood.
It's a simple tale about a simple plan; the only thing that's not simple are the hearts and minds of the men who made them. Sam Raimi has graduated to Hollywood's Big League.
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