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.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Optic nerve extraction

I put S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk near the top of my list for the best movies of 2015, which was already the best year for twenty-first century movies. If I were to go back and revise that list, I suspect the film would rank a little higher. As if to prove he’s no fluke, Zahler has made Brawl in Cell Block 99, a movie which I enjoyed even more than Tomahawk.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is pure, unabashed pulp, the furthest you can get from the increasingly predictable Oscar bait that’s been plaguing awards seasons since time immemorial. In the opening scene we see Vince Vaughn’s towering figure rise from the cab of a tow truck, the back of his bare head adorned with a crucifix tattoo. His character’s name is Bradley, never Brad, and anger undulates beneath the surface of his skin—we can see him struggling not to explode every second he’s on the screen. He’s a surprisingly smart and moral guy for his criminal underpinnings, but the world seems like it’s out to get him. He does the best he can do with shit situations which ambush him on a daily basis.

The same day the recovering alcoholic loses his job, he discovers his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair. He calmly waits for her to leave the scene and proceeds to dismantle her car with his bare hands. A man who shoves his fist through the headlight of a vehicle to rip its wiring out like the guts of a fish is a man who is possessed. Vaughn is 100% believable in the role, so much so it’s hard to believe this is the same guy from Swingers.

Jesus Christ your head

Once he has thoroughly murdered the car, Bradley walks inside and politely tells his wife he’s getting back into the drug dealing business. And that’s what ultimately leads to his incarceration, which will have him behind bars during his daughter’s birth. Bradley takes his medicine without complaint, but the people he’s pissed off are about to concoct one of the most heinous revenge plots ever seen.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not for the faint of heart. No single thing which happens in it is quite as gory or gruesome as that infamous scene in Bone Tomahawk, but as a whole the movie might just be a bit more shocking. I can think of no other film I want to see more than the director’s next one, which will take a portion of this cast and add Mel Gibson to the mix. The name of that film is allegedly Dragged Across Concrete, which is fitting if it’s anything like this.

Goddamn, what a breath of fresh air.

Ichi the Killer (2001) [Midnight Movie]

I can say without exaggeration that Ichi the Killer is a vile movie. If images of graphic violence have ever scarred you, you should avoid it at all costs. There are people who have legitimate reasons for not being able to stomach this level of imagery, and then there are people who simply dislike it. That’s fine. To be clear, you’re not supposed to like it, which seems to be lost on many of its most vocal critics.

Despite multiple recommendations, I initially avoided Ichi the Killer because I assumed the violence was going to be all style and no substance. I never understood the popularity of The Boondock Saints, which seemed utterly forced to me. Crucify me if you must, but it’s high up on the list of reasons I disliked so many genre films from the late 90s and early 2000s. I assumed Takashi Miike was a Japanese Troy Duffy because so many of the people who recommended Ichi the Killer were fans of Saints.

In other words, my expectations led me terribly astray. Hey, I’m only human. I try my hardest not to pre-judge movies, but sometimes it can’t be avoided when there are millions of them to choose from.

Thankfully, I quickly discovered Miike’s Audition and fell head over heels in love with it. I think that movie is best described as beautifully horrendous. Or horrendously beautiful, take your pick. I’ll probably watch it again soon as I continue to thread my way through Miike’s overwhelming filmography.

The special quality that drew me into Audition is hyper-realized in Ichi the Killer. The opening scene depicts the brutal rape of a prostitute. Meanwhile Ichi, the hapless hero, is shown masturbating as he peers through the window, watching the gruesome scene unfold. We later learn Ichi was traumatized by witnessing the rape of a classmate when he was in high school. The event had a very unfortunate effect on him, which isn’t sugarcoated in the least. In some ways Ichi is just as monstrous as the film’s villain, which makes it hard to like him at times. Maybe you’re not supposed to like him, but you should (and probably will) pity him nonetheless.

Although the story revolves around Ichi, Miike mostly focuses on Kakihara, a sadomasochistic gangster whose mentor has disappeared. What the audience already knows is the missing crime boss is dead, but Kakihara assumes leadership of the gang and launches a twisted inquisition to track him down. Kakihara has scars reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker (I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t accidental on Christopher Nolan’s part), only his are so deep he has to keep them pinned shut with facial piercings. And whenever he has a cigarette, he exhales the smoke from the sides of his face.

Like Ichi, Kakihara is also a victim of untold abuse, which he suffered at the hands of the very man he’s risking everything to rescue. In an attempt to assuage his sense of loss, he has a potential love interest chain him up and beat the shit out of him, but it doesn’t do the trick. He needs more. While interrogating members of other gangs, he employs needles, hooks, and scalpels, but he just isn’t his old self until he learns Ichi is coming to kill him next. The fear of impending death, it turns out, makes Kakihara giddily excited because he has seen Ichi’s work and admires it greatly. “I’m scared!” he says with a childlike glee. “I have goosebumps!”

I’m leaving an awful lot out, as I often do, to avoid even minor spoilers. Yet what I want to talk about most is the ending, which is both extremely satisfying and anti-climatic. Hollywood has programmed us to expect everything to be neat and tidy by the time the credits roll, expecting the surviving characters to be miraculously cured of their afflictions. Yet Ichi the Killer has set itself up in such a way that if it gives us what we expect to see, it will only leave us disappointed. Either way, you won’t necessarily be happy with the outcome, but I maintain you’re not supposed to like it.

I keep saying you’re not supposed to like it, which is misleading because I very much liked it as a whole. The movie can have you laughing (nervously, perhaps) when you aren’t peeking through your fingers or reeling in disgust. Like Audition, it’s a beautiful movie which can turn hideous at the drop of a hat, especially when it isn’t cutting corners with cheap CGI. There are plenty of scenes in which it goes too far, maybe even way too far.

That’s probably the point. Miike obviously isn’t concerned about viewers who will take a knee-jerk moral stance, which is refreshing in the era of corporate-owned studios frequently bowing to the slightest bit of social media pressure. (Mob mentalities do not make good writers and the trend to give audiences exactly what they think they want is the biggest reason I don’t go to the theater much anymore. Criticism is fine, but so is making movies which will generate strong criticisms.) The only thing Miike’s concerned about is being true to his characters, so it isn’t a movie in which traumatic events make heroes out of victims, but a movie in which traumatic events fuck people up in complex, unpleasant, and inconvenient ways.

I think that’s much more effective and true-to-life than heroes who solve their problems with a loaded gun (not that I have anything against a good revenge tale). So you killed the person who fucked you up. Now what? You stop being traumatized? Once again I point to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the rare example of a genre film which points out that surviving isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Ichi the Killer is another example, though in a much different way.

As with many movies which get banned by governments around the world, it’s probably not so much the content that scares them, but the power behind the movie. There are those who love Ichi the Killer and those who hate it. They’re both right. I happen to be one of the people who love it. Maybe I’m just a masochist, but I need this much more than I need another Thor or Batman movie.

Blue Ruin (2013) [Midnight Movie]

Last year I featured Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which I liked a lot. The movie has continued to grow on me. I love crime movies, scenes of genuine terror, and mean bad guys. Green Room checked all of those boxes while subverting the usual cliches—I loved it when the closest thing to a hero begins to tell his life story, and the lead female interrupts him to point out she doesn’t give a shit.

There’s a bit of that in Blue Ruin, too. A gun nut who may have had some experience killing people advises the main character not to give any big speeches before blowing the bad guys away. Just pull the trigger and move on with your life. When the main character fails to heed this advice, it almost gets him killed.

Blue Ruin was one of those movies I really wanted to see, but it somehow slipped through the cracks for me. (I assumed Blue Ruin was Saulnier’s first film, but it turns out he made a movie called Murder Party first; I’ll be catching up on that one sometime this year, too.) Now that I’ve seen it I can say it’s one of those movies I live to see. Maybe I didn’t like it as much as I currently enjoy Green Room, but I have a feeling this one will grow on me as well.

Macon Blair, who plays the wildly bearded Dwight, is first seen soaking in a bathtub. When he hears a noise in the house he leaps through the window like a startled raccoon. It turns out Dwight doesn’t live here and the people who do have unexpectedly come home. Dwight actually lives in a beat-up car just off of the beach, which is where he’s been living ever since his parents were murdered. Since he leaped out of the stranger’s tub with nothing more than a bath towel, we learn early on he’s an expert at acquiring clean clothes. This is a skill which will prove useful more than once throughout the movie because things are going to get very bloody.

I didn’t know who Macon Blair was before this movie. He’s already becoming one of the my favorite actors.

I want to be vague about the next few bits because the movie is so much more exciting if you know next to nothing about it. Treading lightly in regards to spoilers: the man who murdered Dwight’s parents has just been released on a technicality, and Dwight decides he’s going to kill him. There’s not a whole lot of thought put behind the plan, but Dwight’s sister is on board until she realizes the murder attempt makes her family a target.

Long story short: it’s an extremely entertaining crime thriller which examines the self-destructive nature of revenge (and blah blah blah) without becoming the least bit preachy. And if you want to know more about the plot before seeing it, see any other review, but I’m telling you: if you like grizzly crime movies, this one’s a winner. There’s really nothing else you need to know before seeing it.

Is this movie and Green Room part of a planned trilogy of “color” films? I hope so. Red Rune? Orange Doom? Yellow June? The possibilities are endless.

Imperium is available on VOD

FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is a total nerd who gets roped into going undercover as a skinhead, convinced by a colleague (Toni Collette) that white supremacy groups pose just as much of a threat, if not more, to homeland security as radical Islamic groups. She makes a good point. Early on she asserts people like Timothy McVeigh aren’t actually crazy even though it’s comforting to dismiss them as such. What’s scarier is people like him can’t be spotted in a crowd, unlike the low-level street thugs you see demonstrating in parades and redirecting the nation’s outrage away from the deeper problems.

The film suggests the outspoken hatemongers you see stirring up the controversy on TV and the internet aren’t necessarily the ones you should worry about, but we should instead focus on the smart ones who hide behind this veil of misdirection. It’s on the front line of unwitting pawns that Foster initially infiltrates the group, shaving his head and getting a pride tattoo. He quickly learns there are many layers to the real life conspiracy. The movement is meticulously designed with its hierarchy of street warriors, PR specialists, conventions, and militias. Foster is shocked to learn that his intelligence—the one thing he thought he had going against him—is actually what helps him advance within the dark network.

My first reaction to Imperium’s marketing was it seemed just a little too gimmicky. The movie sites were saying, “See Harry Potter go undercover and fight skinheads!” The trailer felt a little too much like The Departed, which I think was intentional. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, when taken out of the context of the actual movie, seemed entirely too suspicious to work, at least in the glimpses we got from the trailer.

His acting, however, is the best part of the movie. I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series, yet the more I see Radcliffe, the more I forget he ever played the boy magician. I think it’s clear he’s not trying to distance himself from his child star image, he’s simply doing it by being the real deal—an authentic actor who doesn’t feel too entitled to fully dedicate himself to the process. We’ve seen lots of stars play undercover agents, but have you ever seen one look like he was on the edge of breaking at any moment? When we see guys like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio going undercover, they’re playing street-smart guys who happen to be good at turning the acting on or off as needed. Radcliffe is playing a guy who doesn’t have that particular skill set.

Meanwhile Toni Collette is great as always. Tracy Letts, playing a white pride radio personality (think Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, etc.) makes me wonder why the Killer Joe playwright doesn’t act more than he currently does. My only minor complaint is that although the movie doesn’t feel like Donnie Brasco or The Departed for the most part, there are certainly moments which seem a little too familiar. No, it’s not as good as those two films, and maybe not as good as American History X (though I haven’t seen it since it came out), but I did watch five movies this weekend and it was easily my favorite of the bunch.

An unusual creative decision in a movie like this is the reduced role of guns. This isn’t an action movie, nor does it want to be one. It isn’t going to have a montage of contracted assassinations or culminate in a big, bloody shootout. Imperium feels like it might be something that happens all the time, which is probably the most chilling aspect of it.

* * *

Speaking of Tracy Letts, he also appears in Elvis & Nixon, which stars Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey as the title characters. It’s by no means a bad movie and you can currently stream it on Amazon Video. If you’re no stranger to the quality of HBO Films, it’s right along those lines in terms of production value. I’d describe it as pleasant, but not great, and having seen at least a dozen different actors portray Elvis, I always wonder how you can possibly play the guy without going over the top.