Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg's film of Bruce Wagner's Hollywood satire-nightmare turns ludicrous situations into operatic tragedy.
Sometimes ordinary people becoming evil are more frightening than Dr. Hannibal Lector or Frank Booth. Villains like them are downright scary, but they are basically outsiders with a monstrous nature beyond our common sense. In contrast, the characters in Sam Raimi's crime thriller "A Simple Plan" (1998) are nice, ordinary people we can identify with, at least in the beginning. We can recognize their human wishes, desires, and motives. We can understand why they are driven into the plot while it's getting bloodier and more complicated. As a result, it is frightening to observe them doing horrible things, and one question immediately pops up in our minds - what would I do if I were in their circumstance?
"A Simple Plan" is not streaming free, but can be purchased for streaming through Amazon Instant, iTunes and Vudu. Netflix has it available via mail.
Their life in some small rural town in the Midwestern region of US is the emblem of a simple American life. In the opening narration, looking back at what happened during the the darkest time in his life, Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) muses on how plain but happy his life was until that "lucky" incident happened to him and others. He has a decent job, though it does not pay him much, and he has a loving wife, and he also has friends and neighbors who like him. This is indeed a nice life to anyone on the earth; as one short South Korean review which I read twelve years ago pointed out, I can imagine them as the people in those weekend country soap dramas shown on South Korean TV when I was young.
A fateful incident happens during the afternoon on New Year's Eve. After visiting the grave of Hank's deceased father at the town cemetery, Hank, his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) are on the way to their homes together in Jacob's pickup truck. Suddenly a fox, with a hen in his mouth runs across the road in front of the truck, and they decide to go after that fox which runs into a nearby forest. They fail to capture it, but they stumble upon something more tempting than that in the middle of the forest.; they find a small plane which has crashed into the forest, and, besides the dead pilot, it contains a bag containing 4.4 million dollars in cash.
At first, Hank thinks they should call the police, but Jacob and Lou, who have been nearly broke, have a different idea. As far as they know, no one is looking for the plane and the money around their town -- so why not keep the money for themselves? In their view, this is a good chance to realize each one's own American dream, and, tempted by this possibility, Hank ends up being persuaded by them with one condition; he will keep the money in safety for a while until it is confirmed 100% that nobody is looking for it. Then, they will get each own share and live the town forever for avoiding any suspicion.
As the title suggests, this sounds like quite a simple plan to them, but, as we have already guessed, it turns out to be not so simple as they initially thought (it seems they have never watched "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) - too bad for them). Thanks to their greed, foolishness, and mistrust, the plan begins to go wrong right from the very moment when they load the money to Jacob's pickup truck. The troubles keep coming, and they try to cover their tracks and secure their safety, but, every time they try, their plight grows bigger and bigger, like a huge snowball rolling down a snowy hill. When they start to realize how deeply they're stuck with what they have done, it is already too late for them to go back to where they were; they must do anything by any means necessary to not be arrested by the police.
After watching the film on VHS in early 2000, I found Scott B. Smith's novel at the campus library and read it out of curiosity. The novel is one of the most bone-chilling crime thrillers I read during the last decade; it was thrilling to witness the straitened circumstance of the characters getting out of control step by step, and it was also terrifying to observe the dark portrayal of human nature under psychological pressure. No wonder Stephen King lamented that Smith has so far published only one novel besides this work. His second work "Ruins," which was made into a feature film a few years ago, is another taut thriller with a psychological trap squeezing its characters. The premise is far more unreal, but their mental ordeal is as horrible as the creature menacing them.
With the adapted screenplay written by Smith himself, the director Sam Raimi made a first-class thriller. It has suspenseful scenes to be remembered, and some of them are still capable of making my body tighten. The most memorable scene to me is the one where one conflicted character must choose between other two, both of whom he cares about. While watching this scene last night, I was again marveled by the excellent jobs done by Thornton and Paxton. Their facial expressions and their dialogue say one thing while implying other things, so they keep us guessing and agitated till the payoff finally arrives. I still wonder to some degree - was Jacob's behavior just an act from the beginning or was it more complex than that?
The movie deserves to be categorized as "country noir." The best recent example is "Winter's Bone" (2010), whose heroine faces the darkness of her rural town and its ruthless criminals while searching for her missing father. The bleak atmosphere of a Midwestern town on winter days is well-maintained; a bunch of crows on bare tree branches render an ominous tone to the snow-covered background, and the characters discover the evil inside themselves while struggling in the twisted plot and helplessly sinking into a moral quagmire.
"A Simple Plan" sounds a little similar in some respects to "Fargo" (1996), by the Coen brothers. Not so surprisingly, "A Simple Plan" was mainly shot in Minnesota, the same region where "Fargo" was shot, and Raimi actually got some advice on the location shooting from the Coen brothers, who have been his close friends since the early days in their careers. As a matter of fact, you can easily imagine its finale with Marge Gunderson saying to one of the characters that there is more to life than a little money. I think she would probably solve the case even before the third act of the plot begins, but the town sheriff in this film (Chelcie Ross) is so gullible that he does not sense anything suspicious from his dear neighbors, let alone the outsider whose questionable identity is the major source of the nail-biting suspense in the third act along with several bullets that may not fit into one gun.
Amid the messy situation depicted in the movie, there is a bleeding heart inside the story, and he is Hank's pathetic loser brother Jacob. The novel version of Jacob is a lot different from Billy Bob Thornton's appearance (in the book, Jacob is more like Brent Briscoe, at least in my imagination), and his role in the story is considerably changed in the film. I don't know anything about how that change was made in the adaptation process, but I can say it was a good choice, because such a dark drama like this film is more effective when it has the character watching what's going on in horror while standing by as the hero crashes into an abyss.
Thornton's harrowing performance portrays Jacob as a shabby man with simple wishes. Maybe Jacob is dim and unwise like his drinking buddy Lou, but he turns out to be not as stupid as we thought at first. It may be okay to him to take away the money when nobody looks at him, but what he and his brother do for keeping it begins to trouble him. Their crimes have already taken a toll on his mind, so he desperately clings to his wishes which can be fulfilled by money.
Thornton has a sad scene with Paxton in which Jacob tells his brother about only girl he ever dated. Though it turned out that the relationship was part of cruel bet, he didn't mind about that and he was grateful to her, because it was one of the few happy times he's had in his miserable life. Jacob tries to believe that he could be happy like that againwith the money, but the circumstances become more unbearable to him, so he arrives at the decision which results in the heartbreaking climactic sequence near the finale.
Bill Paxton, who is good as a corruptible decent man, and Bridget Fonda, who plays Hank's manipulative wife, are also crucial in making the drama in the film work. As average decent people, they've been content with their mundane daily lives, but now the money brings out the discontent and other negative things hidden inside them, so they gradually become a couple of weasels who will stop at nothing for their safety and, above all, for the money. Hank is at a loss about what he has become while losing the conscience his brother retains, but he also finds that, once he crosses the line, the rest is, to his horror, very easy to do.
Fonda's character is the most unlikable character in the movie because she is indirectly responsible for the chaos in the film, but I feel a little sympathy for her. As the Lady MacBeth/famme fatale of the story, Fonda gets her own moment when she is at the hospital right after giving birth to her daughter; when she and her husband are left alone in the room, she immediately spins her brain to concoct a new scheme for them while at the same time showing tender mother love for her child. Later, there is a bitter monologue in which she lets out her dissatisfaction with a life that has no visible bright future, and I think many middle-class people at this hard time can understand and identify with her frustration and desire.
While operating ruthlessly within its logic, "A Simple Plan" is ultimately a morality play fueled by the dark side of human nature. We all were taught that if we come across a bag of money, we should call the police, but I am not entirely sure about what I would do if I were in their shoes. Thanks to this film and the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men"( 2007), I think I will more likely to do as my teachers and my parents told me, but we human beings are capable of anything.
The characters in the movie eventually learn that truth while paying a cost far bigger than they have ever imagined. Perhaps they can continue to lead their lives while other people around them will never suspect about what kind of people they really are, but, as Hank bitterly admits in the closing narration, they cannot fool themselves because the consequences of their acts will always be with them for the rest of their lives and they know all too well what they are capable of.
Sandwiched between two major successes in Raimi's career, "A Simple Plan" can be easily overlooked. Its critical success was a turning point for Raimi; it helped him move on from being the director of "The Evil Dead" (1981) to being the director of "Spider-Man 2" (2004). Though "Spider-Man 3" (2007) was a disappointing end to his trilogy, Raimi recently proved to us that he has lost none of the horror/comedy skill of his early days by making "Drag Me to Hell" (2009), where he plays us like a drum with the sense of diabolical fun. I hope he will get another good chance to play us like a piano as he did in this film.
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