Saturday, May 7, 2011

REVIEW: A Simple Plan (1998)

Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton

Sam Raimi is an odd character, isn’t he? You can’t fault him for not branching out. I think his best work will always be The Evil Dead (the first one), but most of the other stuff he’s done is admirable as well.

Well, OK; MOST of what he’s done is creative and has merit to it. But in between the creeping horror/comedy of his early works and the mainstream-friendly work he did with Spider-Man, there lay another movie – a dark and tense drama about two brothers who find a crashed plane with a dead guy and a bag with millions of dollars in it, in the middle of the snowy woods.

Starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, this is one of those movies that is certainly dramatic and gripping, but at times takes the dramatism a bit far, and sometimes lapses into a comic book-like melodrama. Mainly the focus is on the two brothers and the decay of their worlds around them as the money destroys them. Yeah. Money is evil! In this case, it’s pretty easily understandable – it drives several characters to murder, for Pete’s sake. The acting is well done. Thornton gives the most emotionally vulnerable performance, and his status as a poor, downtrodden and weak-looking guy gives him a lot of potential for empathy from the viewers. But Bill Paxton does a good job playing a snooty, opportunistic schemer too, as he double-crosses and backstabs his way to keeping the money for his wife and kid.

The story unfolds pretty smoothly, rolling through each conflict and gradually escalating to the chilling and tragic climax. Lou (Brent Briscoe) is a rude, crude lout who also discovered the money with them, and through the film he gets progressively more irate about Paxton’s suggestion that he (Paxton) keep all the money at his house until they’re sure they can get away with spending it, finally ending in a shoot-out where Lou ends up dead. There’s another scene where a farmer is killed, too. These are not murderers; just average people in possession of a lot of money. That kind of power makes people susceptible to things they might not do otherwise. This is pretty much the movie’s main theme.

But a lot of the time even that gets stretched beyond the limits of credibility. When Paxton’s wife (Bridget Fonda) sees the money for the first time, she automatically – like literally, in a second – starts plotting and scheming ways to keep the money for themselves. At first I thought this was just a little silly, being that she had changed her tone so fast, but when she started advocating murder and telling Paxton to turn his brother against Lou, I couldn’t believe it anymore. It’s just too comic book­­-esque. How would this seemingly normal looking woman be able to come up with all of this shit so fast, and with so much certainty? Is she some kind of secret agent, or terrorist? It’s just too over the top.

And then at the end, when Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and the sheriff (Chelcie Ross) are out in the woods and the ‘FBI agent’ they’re with turns out to actually be the brother of the guy in the plane who was trying to steal the money to begin with when it crashed. He kills the sheriff and holds Paxton at gunpoint, and I don’t know, this also just seems way too comic-book-like, way too fantastical for such a gritty story like the film was going for. I can’t help but think that moments like these take away from the very realistic and poignant drama that some of this film has. I don’t mind comic-book-like, over the top and melodramatic scenes in movies – sometimes they can be entertaining; these are still movies, mind you, and I don’t pretend everything has to be scaled down to a realistic level. But when a movie like this one has some really good, touching drama and tension, over the top moments like the ones I’ve talked about here really ruin the flow.

I think the best parts of this movie are the scenes with Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton together just…talking about stuff. These are the moments when the movie quiets down and really delivers some raw, emotional goodness in the form of solid and relatable drama. Like the part where Paxton finds out that their father committed suicide – that’s good! I wish they had really done more with this idea. There was a lot of potential there. And in general their conversations are always interesting. The two actors work well together and the writing remains strong and down to Earth.

So this movie is good. It’s not perfect and there are moments when the drama is stunted by the over the top nature of some scenes, but it’s worth watching, and never gets dull. Sam Raimi’s works after this weren’t nearly as impressive, but this one’s worth seeing. Go check it out.