A Simple Plan ★½

Based on the novel by Scott B. Smith, A SIMPLE PLAN stars Bill Paxton as Hank Mitchell, whose life in rural Minnesota seems to fit the wholesome ideals often associated with small-town America: honest work; a wife (Bridget Fonda) expecting their first child; and a modest, cozy home in which to celebrate the imminent winter holidays. However, all of that changes in an instant when Hank, his unsteady brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's ornery friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), stumble upon the wreck of a small plane within a secluded wildlife preserve. Inside the plane, they discover a duffel bag containing over four million dollars. Despite Hank's initial impulse to alert the police and turn over the money, the three men hatch a plan to sit on the money until spring to see if anyone claims it.

There is a fair amount of tension in A SIMPLE PLAN, but it is all of a single variety: what head-smackingly stupid thing will one of the characters do next, and how can it possibly be stupider than what happened before it? Where FARGO was elegant and rich in subtext, making a pointed contrast between the clashing worldviews of Sheriff Marge Gunderson and the criminals she pursues — and highlighting the exponential folly of criminal desperation — A SIMPLE PLAN is the kind of remedial, dot-to-dot movie in which every character says what he or she (or the author) is thinking, and then proceeds to make one aggravating blunder after another. With only self-inflicted wounds on display, it's an absurdly miserable movie to watch, like the sight of someone repeatedly running over themselves in a car: how it keeps happening is as mystifying as why.

I suppose my fundamental problem with A SIMPLE PLAN is that I don't share Smith's cynical attitude toward people, who he seems to think are Gollum-like greed monsters fundamentally incapable of executing impulse control (this may be unfair to Gollum, who acquits himself in pursuit of his precious far better than anyone in this mess). Smith and Raimi set up a false dichotomy at the outset, pitting the college educated Hank against Jacob and Lou, hayseeds who resent Hank's use of big words and presumed sophistication; but, for Smith's story to work, Hank immediately discards his pretense of greater thoughtfulness to protect his unearned treasure from the cascading avalanche of bad decisions that it provokes. Hank, see, is no different than his uncouth hillbilly peers; in Smith's world, a citified man like Hank doesn't act on his animalistic urges until five minutes have passed. Maybe this is Smith's way of avoiding the typical anti-rural bias in popular culture, asserting that everyone is equally evil, no matter their influences; or, maybe, he's doubling down on it, using Hank as damning proof that, no matter how much book learning you give them, you just can't civilize a rube.