Reviewed by: Matthew Prins
Starring: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Gary Cole, Brent Briscoe, Becky Ann Baker, Chelcie Ross, Jack Walsh, Bob Davis, Tom Carey, John Paxton, Marie Mathay, Paul Magers, Joan Steffand | Director: Sam Raimi | Written by: Scott B. Smith
Perhaps the most important thing to know about “A Simple Plan” is that the film cannot, by any definition of the word, be called a happy film. (If I had an urge to play an incredibly mean practical joke, I would find a friend who liked “Patch Adams” and tell him that “A Simple Plan” is the other “feel-good movie” of the year; following that, I would be prepared to have one fewer friend.) I will be honest. There is a moment at the end of “A Simple Plan” where I have come as close as I have ever come to whimpering among friends in a movie theater. That said, “A Simple Plan” is also one of the most powerful movies I’ve seen in the theater in a long, long time.
Most of the movie’s power comes from the three main characters: Hank (Bill Paxton) who finds a crashed plane carrying $4 million while with his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s best friend Lou (Brent Briscoe). Hank is a college graduate and the smartest of the three, and he wants to give the money to the police. Jacob and Lou want to keep it. Eventually, Hank draws up a plan, where they sit on the money for six months, then split it three ways and all move away from the small town where they grew up. But then there is a somewhat accidental killing by one of the men, and more problems are birthed from previous problems, and the original plan turns to chaos.
If there were an Oscar for ensemble acting, this film should have gotten it, hands down. Not only do the performances of the characters work well individually, the performances play off of each other to such a degree that fiction melds with reality. I didn’t for a moment doubt that Hank and Jacob were brothers, or that Hank and Bridget Fonda’s character were married. I occasionally will see a movie where the characters seem real, but rarely is there a movie where the relationships seem as real as they do in “A Simple Plan”.
In a standout cast, Billy Bob Thornton shines. There are two speeches in the movie Jacob has—one about a childhood toy, one about a former girlfriend—that are as heartbreaking as any moments in film since the final ten minutes of “In The Company of Men”. And he delivers them, not with despair, but with a glimpse of happiness that seems to come from nowhere. The audience and the other characters see the events as violently painful; he sees them as life-confirming. It’s this duality Thornton is able to create that makes his performance so powerful.
A viewer’s impression of the Moral Rating of this movie will depend greatly on what they think a “Christian movie” is. If it is a movie with little sex, violence, or vulgarity, then “A Simple Plan” will probably not be viewed as particularly Christian. By the end of the movie, we have seen quite a number of dead people, some of them killed in front of our eyes. There is more vulgarity than one might hope for, and there is a scene of nudity that starts off the movie. But if it is a movie that glorifies Christian ideals, “A Simple Plan” is as close as one is libel to get under the Hollywood system. The core message is the same as one Jesus gave: a person cannot serve two masters. But rather than money and God, the choice here is between money and family. And where this message ultimately leads is what “A Simple Plan” bravely tries to uncover.