minnesota nice

raimi fest is in full swing over at things that don't suck! in honor of this, i would like to talk a little bit about my favorite sam raimi film, a simple plan (1998).

bill paxton plays hank mitchell, passing his days working at a feed mill, waiting anxiously on the arrival of his first child. it's an existence that he will come to realize, through bitter hindsight, is pretty much exactly what his old man described to him as happiness. bridget fonda is his wife, sarah, a librarian who spends her evenings figuring out ways to make ends meet and preparing for the baby. billy bob thornton is hank's somewhat obtuse brother, jacob. hank and jacob, along with jacob's friend lou, who is an oaf, a drunken lout, are making their way home from a visit to deliver flowers to the family plot when they crash jacob's truck after swerving to miss a fox in the road. they chase jacob's dog, who is chasing the fox, into the snowy woods. the fox escapes but they discover a downed plane covered in snow, the contents of which are one decaying pilot that is being eaten by scavenging birds and one gym bag that contains 4.4 million dollars. hank immediately wants to turn it in. the other two are keen to keep it, arguing that it isn't stealing, as it is most likely drug money. it doesn't take much cajoling when your cut is just shy of 1.5 million and hank devises the titular plan - they sit on the money and wait until the spring thaw when the plane will be found. if the money is not mentioned in the report, which it won't be if the money is as dirty as they assume, they each take their split and leave town. if there is the slightest hint of trouble, hank will burn the money. it's the only way he'll go along with it. he insists on control, immediately establishing a dangerous dynamic, with him as the axis amidst moronic allies. it also reinforces the fact that the arrogance - the "you think you're better than us" vibe - that he is being accused of at exactly the moment they discover the plane is not necessarily just a figment of lou's imagination. their pact in place, they head to their respective homes where it takes scant minutes before they are already breaking their vows of secrecy and the events are set in motion that will end up with six bodies floating in a wake of greed and guilt. if only people could keep their mouths shut.

this is a particular strain of cinema that i love - the midwestern noir/crime film. as the flipside to their urban antecedents in the forties and fifties, the open spaces these films occupy provide an isolation that is every bit as unnerving to the guilty soul as the claustrophobic, neon-littered cityscape. from in cold blood (1967) to fargo (1996) to the exemplary winter's bone (2010), back roads muddy from melting snow and the eerie quiet of the plains have provided the backdrop for some of the most chilling and effective crime thrillers in the modern era of cinema, certainly some of my favorites. even lesser efforts like the ice harvest (2005) - not a bad film, just not on par with the others i have mentioned here - i tend to give a headstart just based upon their wintery, rural geography. it's put to immediate use here, as some of the first images we are greeted by are those of a literal fox in the henhouse, a bit of symbolism that would be impossibly incongruous in los angeles. the snow deadens all sound to the point that when gunshots ring out it's the only thing you can hear for miles. the most devastating part of the setting, though, is the implication that cruel fate came all this way to find you. it ferreted you out, to stick with raimi's animal symbolism.

"you work for the american dream, you don't steal it", hank tells jacob and lou in the few moments that he is still hanging onto his ideals. had he known he was in a noir film he might not have said something so naive. noir exists to undermine the american dream. it exists to put statements like this to the test. in this case, his statement turns out to be true. it's hank that fails the test. he's eventually proven right, in spite of his actions. he had the answer the whole time. he just didn't have the wherewithal to put it into practice. in fact, the transformation that hank undergoes almost rockets past noir into tragedy. the ancients would probably find a fair amount that was familiar in scott smith's excellent screenplay. hank is obviously a serious and dignified protagonist. he's the only college graduate we meet, a fact that is referred to on more than one occasion. he has a child on the way and is therefore saddled with adult obligations that neither jacob nor lou have. to say he suffers a reversal of fortune is putting it mildly. his hubris is undoubtedly his undoing. he knows he is the most intelligent of the three men. he judges himself to be the only one capable of holding this thing together, merely the first in an ever-widening spiral of horrible decisions and reckless actions. it takes about twelve hours before he commits his first murder to protect the secret and at every turn he is too clever by half, constantly outsmarting himself. the gods didn't do him any favors from the very beginning, either. the die seemed cast from the moment that sarah noticed lou in the truck when jacob first pulled into the drive that fateful morning. from there, it seems we are hurtling toward the inevitable. plus, as you might imagine, no one doesn't look for 4.4 million dollars.

guess how many sets of tracks there are on the return trip.

the performances from the principals here are solid from top to bottom, including impressive work from paxton and fonda - two actors i typically have little use for. paxton as the brains of the outfit is a nice bit of casting against type and he never lapses into caricature or the histrionics that i find unappealing in some of his other work. fonda's evolution from librarian to lady macbeth is fun to watch from the moment you see the lust sneak into her eyes as she surveys her dining room table covered in bundles of hundred dollar bills. she never slides all the way into villainy, though, and she nails us right in our sympathy with an extended speech about the monotonous grind of coupon clipping and hand-me-downs for their daughter that the days will become without this money. she lays bare the truth that resides underneath the things that we all tell ourselves occasionally to get through our everyday. 4.4 million dollars on your kitchen table blows your illusions of satisfaction all to hell. billy bob thornton tops them all, though. his characterization of jacob is informed by a self-awareness that ultimately makes him the most intelligent of all three. he knows when he has reached his limit. he has worked within these limits all his life and it is what sets him apart. he is wise enough to never let his reach exceed his grasp, an ability that every other character lacks. he never speaks less than the truth. he's not capable of it. it's just a great performance, stirring and sympathetic, providing the pity and fear that cements its status as tragedy. on top of all that, raimi gives them the perfect world to inhabit. in edgar g. ulmer's detour (1945) there is a brilliant shot that pans across the floor of the scene of the final crime in which you pick up the small detail of paint chips coming off the baseboards. it perfectly illustrates the grubby, small-time universe the characters inhabit. i love that shot. there is a similar shot in this film where, just once, in the margin of the frame, you see a tray of perfumes on bridget fonda's dressing table that tells you everything you need to know about the mundane middle class existence she lives and the measures she takes to feel glamorous. it's a great detail and is but one example of how well constructed a universe raimi provides for his characters. if you've never seen it, you ought to, especially if you're only familiar with raimi's hyperkinetic horror offerings or his big budget superhero adventures. it's a remarkable, assured picture that is unlike anything else on his resume.

make sure to stop in at things that don't suck all week long for all things raimi. in addition to bryce's excellent work there are tons of fine contributors chipping in. check it out!


  1. This was a top notch piece cole thanks so much for contributing it. I particularly love "Noir exists to undermine the American dream." too right it does.

    Thorton's so good here it makes me sad he hasn't made anything worth watching in years.

  2. thank you, gentlemen. it was my pleasure.

  3. Terrific review, Cole. In particular:

    "the most devastating part of the setting, though, is the implication that cruel fate came all this way to find you."

    Just one hell of a line.

  4. thank you, sir. thanks for coming over to take a look.