A Simple Plan ★★★★½

The 80s and 90s Neo-Noir Project

“Maybe we got ’em demoralised!” – For Bill

The final film in my neo-noir project is one that I, strangely considering the news we all received yesterday, actually had queued up to watch on Sunday.

It's a great film to end the project on, I think, because it was one of the very last films made in the genre at the end of a decade that was really strong for it. And it's a great film to (almost) start my Bill Paxton project with because it's the kind of performance that he really was excellent at. Although there were two kinds of performances where he particularly excelled, in fact.

Flamboyant, loudmouth but colourful blokes who don't cope at all well when the heat gets a bit too much for them, but also reliable and stable everyday guys who have a dark past or are hiding a more sinister edge. The latter type of character is the kind he generally got noticed less for, and I can understand that to a certain extent. Hudson in Aliens, as well as the turns in Weird Science, True Lies and maybe Predator 2 are all instantly memorable and charismatic turns that stick in your memory.

Yet as he showed in A Simple Plan, his general day-to-day normality and goodness could also be employed in altogether different kinds of films. He plays his role here so perfectly that Sam Raimi's subtle twisting of the two lead characters here, himself and his on-screen brother Billy Bon Thornton, is far more convincing and believable than it might have been in other hands.

While initially Thornton would appear to be the one with most to gain from a plane load of cash, as jobless and dim as he initially seems to be, the realisation slowly dawns on us that Paxton and Bridget Fonda have more to lose by not being able to take their share of the money. Thornton doesn't even want to leave his home town - just to fix up their dad's old farmhouse and have something he can finally focus on in his life.

They are a quite marvellous pair of characters because they never quite go the places you expect. Thornton might be presented as outwardly slow but he's really not - he may like the simple life, but he's not simple. The best scene in A Simple Plan is where Paxton tries to goad their other co-conspirator, Brent Briscoe, into confessing a murder that he didn't commit.

Thornton plays it like he's decided not to go through with it but it quickly becomes apparent that he's playing Briscoe far cleverly than Paxton would be able to manage. But Raimi allows him to infuse the scene with real feeling, with him taking the opportunity to aim verbal shots at a brother with whom he shares "nothing but a name". All the while, Raimi does interesting things with Fonda.

He thankfully dispenses early on with the possible tedium that would have resulted in this being one of those thrillers where the bloke doesn't tell his wife and she becomes suspicious and so on and snore. Instead, he tells her right from the outset and watching her become arguably the most devious character in this film becomes absolutely key to how successful it is.

This being Raimi, he can't resist the odd bit of horror-esque stuff (the bit with the fox stealing that chicken was almost like he couldn't help himself) and the occasional bit of black humour ("I hit the farmer!") but he surprised everyone at the time of this release with the subtlety he shows here. Where he shows it best, perhaps, is in the way A Simple Plan is also a really good family drama too.

I often say about these sorts of things that familial stuff often gets in the way of how well the crime element of the film is drawn up, but here you are actually left to REALLY care and be interested in what happens to these people. It especially makes the last 10 minutes particularly poignant and sad as Raimi goes for the rightful downbeat ending this story deserves.

I think we should face facts that this isn't just the best of Raimi's non-Evil Dead films. It's just his best film.

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