This Is Rather Beautiful
What Is Actually Happening, September 15, 2016

52 Movies: Week 36 - A Simple Plan

What would you do if you found, way out in the woods, a wrecked airplane containing a dead drug runner and four million dollars? Who would you be hurting if you just took the money home? The dead man had no moral right to the money, nor, probably, did anyone else involved in acquiring it. No one else need ever know that you’d found it, and if anyone ever did come looking for the money there would be nothing to connect it to you. And you could surely put it to good use. Probably to better use than the police.

Well, should you ever find yourself faced with that temptation, and would benefit from a very effective cautionary tale to keep you from making a very big mistake, this movie is it. “Morality tale” is not usually much of a compliment, but this one is extremely effective. It’s a morality tale without preaching, an excellent instance of the show-don’t-tell approach to storytelling.

It’s not one person who finds the plane and the money, but three, and as you might guess that causes problems. Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) are out in the snowy Minnesota woods one winter afternoon when one of them throws a snowball at an odd snow-covered shape, which knocks off some of the snow, revealing the plane. When they find the money it doesn’t take Jacob and Lou very long to persuade Hank, the most seemingly responsible of the three, that the three of them should hold on to it rather than notify the police. They’ll hide it, hang on to it for a while, then split it up and spend it very slowly and carefully: a simple plan.

But of course things begin to go wrong almost immediately. They make mistakes. They panic. The relentless logic of evil operates, and they do bad things, then dig their hole deeper in trying to conceal those. Someone comes looking for the money. Worse things are done. The walls close in, and finally Hank can see only one way out.

I’ve only seen this movie once, and perhaps on a second viewing I might find something to quibble with. I suppose I could make the broad criticism that after all the course of events portrayed is really a little far-fetched. But apart from that it really seems pretty close to perfect, in that every element of it is precisely appropriate and effective as a part of the whole: acting, script, cinematography.

I’ll enlist Roger Ebert in support of my claims:

"A Simple Plan" is one of the year's [1998] best films for a lot of reasons, including its ability to involve the audience almost breathlessly...

The performances can be described only as flawless: I could not see a single error of tone or feeling. Paxton, Thornton, Fonda and Briscoe don't reach, don't strain and don't signal. They simply embody their characters, in performances based on a clear emotional logic that carries us along from the beginning to the end....

You can read Ebert’s entire review here, it’s a bit spoiler-ish, though it doesn’t give away anything essential. The Fonda he mentions, by the way, is Bridget, as Hank's wife, a very important part of the story.

A Simple Plan is also a thriller, and I found it a very intense one. That’s one reason I haven’t seen it again, though I plan to.

Here is a clip from the scene where the men have just discovered the money and Lou and Jacob are trying to talk Hank into keeping it. Jacob is the one with the glasses, Lou with the beard, Hank with the black jacket. Jacob, as you may gather from this scene, is a bit simple-minded, a trait which is very important to the story in several ways.


The production designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein, said “We created a muted black-and-white color scheme to suggest a morality tale, the choices given between right and wrong.” Indeed.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


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I don't have time to read the whole thing at the moment, but this begins sort of like No Country for Old Men.


I tried for a minute to figure out why you wanted to know the name of the author of the book on which the movie was based (who also wrote the screenplay): Scott B. Smith. Then I realized you meant I had left off the byline on the post.

The basic starting point is indeed like No Country, but they're very different beyond that.

I was pretty sure who it was, but I thought I'd ask anyway.


Sounds as though the Pardoner's Tale from the Canterbury Tales might have been a template for this. (Something I've thought before of Shallow Grave.)

This is one of my favourite movies. I've seen it a few times, and my admiration for it does not decline. I'm always surprised that it seems not to be very well known.

As Janet noted, the set-up is rather similar to No Country for Old Men, but I think A Simple Plan has more moral insight. I also like to group it with Woody Allen's Match Point, another terrific Your-Sin-Will-Find-You-Out drama.

All three movies are great, Craig. But this one is more under the radar for me. I did go see it when it was first out in theaters but really haven't thought about it since then and now would like to re-watch. For a while there Billy Bob Thornton had quite a run of great movies where he played very different characters.

Nice summary, Mac. It's a very good movie that I've often recommended.

I wouldn't say it has more moral insight than No Country..., but that the moral questions addressed are not exactly parallel, and are expressed differently.

Another good film with a similar moral point is the Aussie film The Square, from 2008. An adulterous couple plans to run away together with cash stolen from the woman's husband, but their attempt to cover up the theft via arson goes very wrong, and things spiral downward from there.

I see No Country as more of a cat-and-mouse film with an overlay of moral reflection (from the perspective of Sheriff Bell) and metaphysics (in the person of Chigurh, as a kind of personification of fate). A Simple Plan is less ambitious, but allows us to observe how ordinary human relationships strain and break under pressure from distrust and selfishness. As you say, maybe that's not quite "more moral insight", but the two films are definitely interested in different things.

I've not heard of The Square; onto the list it goes!

"I wouldn't say it has more moral insight than No Country..., but that the moral questions addressed are not exactly parallel, and are expressed differently."

Yes, I was going to say something like that. To wit: Simple Plan is concerned with the ramifications of personal moral choices, while No Country is more about the whole question of moral evil and its presence in the world. The crucial moral issue in No Country is not the guy's decision to take the money, but the existence of Chigur. The "relationship", so to speak, between the sheriff and Chigur is as important as the relationship between Chigur and ...what is the guy's name anyway?

Cross-posted--I see we were thinking along similar lines.

Paul, it's been too long since I read Chaucer.

Llewelyn Moss is the character in No Country that Josh Brolin plays.

"I've not heard of The Square; onto the list it goes!"

I saw it at a film festival here in 2010. The director, who was in Pittsburgh working on another project, was present at the screening and took some Q&A afterwards.

It's been six years since I've read any Chaucer. Which is also too long.

Not sure why A Simple Plan has gotten lost in the shuffle over the years. It got a fair amount of attention when it was released, and it holds up well.

Doing my part for it.

Did somebody mention Coming Home recently?


If anyone did I don't remember it.

Well, I will write about it this weekend and you can use it when you need it.


Ok, great, thank you.

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