A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan (1998)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

If you had told me seventeen years ago that in 1998 Sam Raimi would direct an Oscar nominated film, I would have immediately believed you. Of course, I would have thought that the film in question was "Evil Dead IV" or something down those lines. As it turns out, the film is not "Evil Dead IV", but "A Simple Plan", which makes its debut on DVD this week from Paramount Home Video. With this powerful drama, Raimi begins a new chapter in his career, which may turn off hardcore fans, but will be sure to win him many new proponents.

One of the things that makes "A Simple Plan" so great is its simple plot. Hank (Bill Paxton) and Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) are brothers. Hank has a job with a local feed company and a pregnant wife, Sara (Bridget Fonda). Jacob is mentally challenged, wears thick glasses and is unemployed. They live in the snowy world of rural Minnesota. Each year, the brothers visit their parent’s gravesite on New Year’s Eve. This year, Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), the town drunk, is along for the ride. On the way home, Jacob swerves to miss a fox and crashes into a tree. His dog, Mary Beth chases the fox into the woods. As the men pursue the dog, they find a private plane buried in the snow. Inside the plane, they find a duffel bag containing $4.5 million in cash. While Hank wants to turn the money over to the police, Jacob and Lou want to keep it. The three men make a pact to hold on to the money until the spring thaw. If the authorities don’t find the plane or begin to search for the money, then the trio will divide the cash and leave town. This amicable plan begins to unravel as distrust and greed work their way into the lives of the three men. Sara warns Hank to be vigilant, while Lou tries to win the loyalties of Jacob. Soon, double-crosses and murder begin to take over the lives of each person involved and what seemed like a blessing soon becomes a curse.

As I mentioned before, this is not the typical Sam Raimi film. This does not look like a movie from the man who made the "Evil Dead" trilogy and "Darkman". However, I think that it is his scariest film since "The Evil Dead". Raimi seems to be challenging himself here. Without using his trademark moving camera and in-your-face close-ups, Raimi is still able to draw the viewer into the film. This is not to say that the film is not well-shot. Raimi makes good use of the barren, desolate, snow-covered countryside. During the scenes in the woods, the film almost takes on a black-and-white feel, as the white snow contrasts with the black crows (which are all over this movie) and the light or dark clothing worn by the men. There are several shots of people walking from one side of the <$PS,widescreen> frame to the other where Raimi keeps his camera relatively still and lets the sheer size of the shot pull you in. There are also several shots that are worthy of a college film criticism class (the ones where you "read into" movies instead of just watching them).

There is a running visual cue of a fox that parallels the story and the situation that the men are in. There’s a great shot of Bill Paxton inside of the down plane where we only see him through cargo netting, implying that the trap has been sprung upon this helpless man.While Raimi takes on a new visual style, the tone of the film dates back to his earliest work. As I mentioned above, I think that "A Simple Plan" is Raimi’s scariest film since "The Evil Dead". As with that film, "A Simple Plan" is deadly serious and pulls no punches. But instead of grossing you out, Raimi makes you squirm by twisting the tension as taught as possible and making each scene excruciatingly suspenseful as we watch the characters sell each other out.

Adding to Raimi’s superb direction is the script by Scott B. Smith, based on his own novel. The script was nominated for a best screenplay adaptation Academy Award. As previously mentioned, the story is deceptively simple. But, as the characters are asking themselves, "What’ll we do with this money?," we are asking ourselves the same question. As the Hank, Jacob, Lou, and Sara make their moral decisions, we are forced to examine our own morals and ask ourselves how far we would go for $4 million. Smith has structured the film like a novel, turn the movie into the equivalent of a page-turner. We can’t wait to see what happens next. Even when the plot takes a slight turn in the last thirty minutes, the viewer can’t help but hang on and follow the film to one of the most bitter and brutal conclusions to any film, ever.An excellent ensemble cast has been assembled for "A Simple Plan". While Bill Paxton is known for his action roles, it’s always nice to see him stretch his acting muscles in drama. He is perfect as Hank, the everyman who is not used to being in situations that he can’t control. I can’t help but wonder why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. However, Billy Bob Thornton was nominated for an Oscar for his work in "A Simple Plan", playing a simple man. On the surface, Jacob seems simple-minded and good-hearted, but Thornton is able to show us that Jacob is actually smarter than people give him credit for and that he is also hiding some bitterness. Bridget Fonda (a long-time Raimi fan who had a cameo in "Army Of Darkness") essays the most surprising character as her Sara proves herself to be more than just a meek housewife. Brent Briscoe is chillingly good as Lou, creating a character we instantly dislike and do not trust. Gary Cohl (of Raimi’s short-lived TV series "American Gothic") has a small role (which I won’t decribe, lest the surprise be ruined) and only says about 30 words, but is incredibly scary. (Does anyone else think he looks just like former Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins? It’s bizarre.)

The Paramount Home Video DVD of "A Simple Plan" is a good presentation. The film is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1 and is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. The framing appears to be accurate and there are no evident compression artifacts. As I hinted at earlier, the color palette is excellent with very deep blacks and distortion-free whites. The picture is very clear, with no artifacting or obvious flaws with the source material.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 soundtrack is acvtive throughout the film, though a bit too subtle at times (especially with the rear speakers). However, the haunting music by Danny Elfman is well-presented and definitely adds an aural dimension to the film. The only extra on the DVD is a full-frame theatrical trailer.

If you are in the mood for a gut-wrenching thriller or want an example of how artists can change and grow, then I urge you to check out "A Simple Plan". Raimi’s work on this film has been compared to that of Hitchcock. Forget that. This is better than Hitchcock. It’s a dead-on portrayal of human emotion that never gets campy or nudges the viewer in the ribs. This is the real deal.