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  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.