One of the best crime thrillers of the last 15 years, “A Simple Plan” has never quite gotten its due. It was based on a best-selling novel, had perfect actors for their respective roles (Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Brent Briscoe, Bridget Fonda), had a terrific script by the novel’s author Scott B. Smith, and excellent directing by Sam Raimi. It got some respectful nods from critics, Oscar nominations for Thornton and Smith, but bombed at the box office and has now been virtually forgotten.
That’s too bad, because this is a superior, intelligent thriller that presents more ethical quandaries and dilemmas than a graduate course on Ethics. The premise seems simple: three men find over $4 million in the woods near a crashed plane and decide to keep it. But then things unravel … and all three men find themselves in a world of danger that keeps escalating and the men find themselves doing things they would have never thought possible.
It reminds me of something I read once … maybe by Russian philosopher and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin … that basically asserted that it’s not one act that causes man to act unethically. If you wonder how you would act if presented with a significant moral and ethical dilemma, your answer is in how you act when presented with arguably minor ethical dilemmas (i.e. getting too much change back from a cashier, finding that jewelry item you reported missing after were paid for the item by your insurance company). It’s the little decisions you make in your day to day life that comprises your character and what will define what you do in the face of a horrible decision. Nobody’s perfect and even good people can make bad decisions. But a callous disregard for such things in minor situations is likely to lead to more horrendous decisions later. I may be wrong on whether it was Bakhtin that said this, but the sentiment holds very strongly to this film … and to what I have seen is behind most people’s very bad decisions.
“A Simple Plan” is deep. Very deep. And it will stay with you for days.
This film appears to be based on Carole King’s life … but not exactly. Because writer-director Allison Anders did a very smart thing when she came up with “Grace of My Heart.” Instead of going the straight biopic route … and getting raked over the coals for fudging details of what actually happened to keep the story moving, she fictionalized her account. This way, she could create composites of people, tell a compelling story, and keep people focused on her film. And, instead of trying to buy the rights to all of the great songs from the Brill Building era (which would have been cost-prohibitive), she hired the composers of that period (Burt Bachrach, Gerry Goffin, etc) and teamed them up with Elvis Costello and others to write new songs. This was another incredibly smart move, because not only are the new songs terrific in their own right, but having the old songs would have further distracted audiences from the narrative.
Anders script and directing are terrific. There’s loads of great actors in this film (Eric Stoltz, Matt Dillon, Patsy Kensit, Bridget Fonda, John Turturro), but Illeana Douglas towers above them all in the performance of her career as the lead, Edna Buxton. She should have copped an Oscar nomination for this. Unfortunately, even though Martin Scorsese was Executive Producer, the film was released by Gramercy Pictures (the mini-major created by Universal Pictures and Polygram Films), who botched the release of a lot of terrific films of the period (“Dazed and Confused,” “Mallrats,” “Bound,” “Kalifornia”) that are now considered classics. When they had the occasional hit (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Fargo”), it seemed purely accidental. But I digress …
This is the musical highlight of the film, in my opinion. “God Give Me Strength” was written by Burt Bachrach and Elvis Costello and is sung by Kristen Vigard (Douglas is lip-syncing).
If you want to hear a great podcast about this film, check out The Projection Booth’s episode on this film. It’s really terrific.