Of Mice and Simple Plans

Twenty years ago a high school buddy and I went to see A Simple Plan. We went into the theater with short sleeves on and, leaving through the windowless stairwell exit, we were shocked to discover everything had been covered in snow by the time we came out. It was as if the movie had literally transported us to its dreadfully claustrophobic winter land.

Weather coincidences aside, A Simple Plan is an extremely effective crime thriller. It may even be my favorite book-to-film adaptation. The most you can hope for from a typical adaptation is it won’t change too much. Scott Smith, who has only published two novels, didn’t write an adaptation so much as he wrote a leaner, meaner draft of the original story. (His second novel, The Ruins, is one of the few long books I’ve read in a single day.) In the movie, his characters became a lot more human and sympathetic.

I chose the short trailer because the long one gives too much away. Do not—I repeat: do not go looking at related Youtube videos if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Bill Paxton plays Hank Mitchell, a man of average intelligence and, in the beginning, of average morality. He’s the smart one compared to his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thorton) whose literary cousin could very well be Lennie Small. Though Hank is the smart one, at times snobbishly so, there are key scenes in which Jacob reveals he knows a lot more than Hank suspects, particularly regarding family matters and accurately reading the cards life dealt ’em. (There’s a scene in which Jacob talks about the only girlfriend he’s ever had and it’s at once funny and heartbreaking.)

While searching for their dog in the snowy Minnesota woods, the brothers discover a crashed plane containing millions of dollars. Unfortunately for Hank, Jacob’s dimwitted buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe from Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise) is also wrapped up into the plot; he plays the wild card who’s integral to these types of movies and he’s scarily good at the job. Described as “a forty year old high school dropout who’s proud of people calling him the town drunk,” he can cause the whole thing to come crashing down at any moment.

The plan, as it should be, is simple: Hank will sit on the money until spring, at which point the snow will melt and the plane will be discovered by the authorities. Then they’ll know who’s looking for the money and adjust the plan accordingly. Hank warns Jacob and Lou not to tell a soul. Hank proceeds to race home and blab about the money to his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda).

The expression on Sarah’s face, when Hank dumps the money on the kitchen table, is pure movie magic. No matter how good a person you think you are, nothing can prepare you for staring at a load of cash like that. And nothing can prepare you for how it changes everything. Sarah is the dutiful wife who becomes the mastermind of the increasingly complex plan, acting as the puppet master for everything that follows. She becomes so immersed in the plan she becomes sinister in her tweaking of it; even as the nurse hands her her firstborn child, she immediately whispers conspiratorially about what Hank should do next.

Naturally, the plan is never as simple as it seems and, a mere twenty minutes into the film, Hank finds himself helplessly cornered by unforeseen consequences. In that regard, the film is a lot like Fargo (my favorite film of all time) and Blood Simple, and it’s no wonder the directors of those films and the director of this one have had their careers cross paths at times. Listen, I’m a guy who grew up watching the Evil Dead franchise about a billion times so I don’t say this lightly: this is Sam Raimi’s best movie, period.

The similarities it shares with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men didn’t occur to me until recently, when I happened to read one and watch the other on the same day. Those comparisons can’t be said of Smith’s source material, which is yet another reason to cherish this movie as something special. And when you learn it was a commercial flop, a double whammy on the heels of Raimi’s disappointingly goofy The Quick and the Dead, you can kind of see how such a visionary movie director eventually got lost in Hollywood mediocrity.

This is what you get: a suspenseful plot, an excellent cast, and wonderful dialogue. I adore crime movies and consider this one among the best.

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