film / tv / streaming / politics / web / celeb/ industry / video / love / lists / think pieces / misc / about / cbr
film / tv / politics / web / celeb

October 4, 2007 |

By Dustin Rowles | Underappreciated Gems | October 4, 2007 |

As many of you who have been here since the beginning might have noticed, we here at Pajiba have steadily grown from basically a two-man operation with a couple of reviews each Friday over three years ago, to a group of ten similarly-minded colleagues that now attempt to compose several posts per day. Unfortunately, neither the box-office release schedule nor staffing availability always makes this easy, so in an effort to manufacture more review fodder, I’m introducing another feature into the mix here: Pajiba’s Underappreciated Gems. Thus henceforth, we will periodically, and with no set regularity, review films that went mostly unseen by mass audiences and/or wrongfully flew under the radar when it came to awards recognition, meaning that — over the years — many of these films have been largely forgotten by audiences already buried in an avalanche of cinematic shit. We’d like to put them forth for resurrection.

And for no other reason than this is the film that sparked the idea in my mind, we’re starting today with A Simple Plan, a movie that — yes — garnered Oscar nominations for best adapted screenplay and supporting actor, but otherwise faded into obscurity after topping out with a meager $16 million box-office pull — this, despite a strong cast, a then popular director with cult audiences (and later with mainstream ones), and a remarkably gripping tale of desperation that unfolds like a humor-free Coen Brothers film. That’s not to say that A Simple Plan should be considered a classic, but it is a movie that deserves considerably more attention than it received when it was released in 1998 and was subsequently lost in a slew of December releases that included Stepmom, Patch Adams, Shakespeare in Love and, of course Rushmore which opened on the same day and deservedly stole the limelight.

The film’s premise is as simple as the title suggests: Hank (Bill Paxton), a prickly, slightly uppity feed store owner; his dim-witted but kindhearted brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton); and Jacob’s backwoods, useless idiot of a friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), inadvertently stumble across $4 million in a crashed airplane while chasing a fox through the snowy rural Minnesota forest. After convincing a very reluctant Hank, they design a plan to allow Hank to hang on to the loot until the plane is discovered in the spring. If no one claims the money, they agree to split it and leave town. Simple, right?

Of course, it never is. Like A Simple Plan’s more famous and misanthropic British cousin, A Shallow Grave, greed gets the better of them. In an effort to keep the money hidden, Jacob — who like Lennie Small just wants to live off the fatta the lan’ — metaphorically squeezes that rabbit to death (here, played by a neighboring farmer). Hank tries to cover it up, but the ever trusting Jacob blabs to Lou, who attempts to exploit the situation for financial gain. Meanwhile, Hank’s wife (Bridget Fonda), a demure librarian, goes all Lady Macbeth on her husband, spurring on the eventual violence that prompts the characters’ downward spiral. Things fall apart in a very slow and deliberate fashion — you can not only see each blunder coming, you’re given ample time to process it before the next grave misstep — as Hank and Jacob dig themselves deeper and deeper into the suck until this bleak morality tale eventually winds toward an unpredictable and emotionally crippling denouement.

And the reason it’s so emotionally devastating is that, unlike A Simple Plan’s Midwestern noir predecessor, the arguably better Fargo, director Sam Raimi treats his characters with the utmost compassion: These are good homespun folks who simply find themselves doing unspeakable things — things that you’d never imagined them capable. Hank is, initially anyway, the film’s moral compass, but his magnetized pointer goes haywire under the spell of greed, while his brother Jacob only wants enough money to live a simple life on the farm their father lost to the bank. He idolizes his brother, though in the end, it’s his willingness to go along with Hank that is his own undoing. Their weaknesses are so plausibly human, however, that it’s hard not to root for them, which makes it that much more difficult to stomach when the plan inevitably goes awry.

Indeed, while Fargo was darkly laughable, there isn’t a single moment of levity in the decidedly grim A Simple Plan — the bleakness just gets more harsh as the noose of desperation slowly tightens around your neck until, ultimately, it snaps at the spine. And it’s the performances of Paxton and, especially, Thornton that sell it. Paxton plays another routine Everyman, a role he has mastered over the years; here he is a decent and humble husband and father, who miraculously still seems as decent and humble after he becomes a ruthless killer. Imagine, for instance, “Friday Night Light’s” Coach Taylor or perhaps Andy Griffith killing a man in cold blood over a bag of cash, and you get the general idea.

And then there is Jacob. Dear God, Jacob. Scott Smith, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, was wise to expand Jacob’s part substantially for the film. In the beginning of the movie, he’s a simpleton — a dull-witted cock-up that, more than anything, is a burden to Hank and his wife. But, instead of an Academy-approved mentally-challenged character with a series of tics and affectations, Thornton creates in Jacob someone infinitely believable — he’s like a member of your own family, the drug-addicted cousin, uncle, or brother you try not to think about too much because you feel guilty for not doing more to help him. And by the end, it’s unexpectedly Jacob that is the film’s tragic hero, while Hank is left with an even bigger burden of consciousness than he began with.

It’s a powerful movie, one that you may have a hard time shaking for a few hours; it begs to be chased with a shot of Johnnie Walker. And though Raimi will always be remembered for both the Evil Dead and Spiderman trilogies, it is A Simple Plan that may be his great, forgotten accomplishment.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

Pajiba's Underappreciated Gems

It's Like Fargo Without the Woodchipper

A Simple Plan / Dustin Rowles

Underappreciated Gems | October 4, 2007 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

Pushing Daisies

Pajiba Love 10/04/07

The Pajiba Store


Privacy Policy