Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Movie Reviews

By Hadley Hury

FEBRUARY 1, 1999: 

A Simple Plan

Potential viewers of A Simple Plan should not be deterred by those trailers and stills of Billy Bob Thornton, in a major supporting role, wearing glasses duct-taped together over his nose and an old knit cap that plasters greasy hanks of hair down around his face. These promotionals, exacerbated by a goofy grin filled with seriously yellowed teeth, suggest that the writer and star of One False Move and Sling Blade may have finally strayed too far over the line into caricature. As it turns out, in A Simple Plan Thornton brings very quietly and subtly to life one of the most interesting tragicomic characters in recent American film. The performance is one of the chief surprises and satisfactions among many in this arresting morality play, adapted for the screen by Scott B. Smith from his best-selling novel, directed by Sam Raimi, with cinematography by Alar Kivilo, design by Patrizia von Brandenstein, music by Danny Elfman, and an acting ensemble that includes Bill Paxton, Brent Briscoe, and Bridget Fonda.

A Simple Plan is a deceptively simple film in which we are reminded – as we too infrequently are by many current films – that drama is not only not afraid of simplicity but recognizes the mastery of it as an essential step toward artistry in the form. Focused tightly on relatively few characters, its storyline correspondingly taut, A Simple Plan sustains the conviction of its good script and actors, its intelligent direction, and strong visual elements; its exploration of good and evil goes deep rather than wide. It is precisely the creative team’s determination not to cover their commercial demographics by throwing in extraneous characters, plot lines, and cinematic kitchen sinks that makes this project refreshing and, despite a few flaws, has earned it several nods in the early awards competitions. The film is involving, disturbing, and highly entertaining.

Set during the long winter in a small town isolated among the forested hills and rolling farmlands of eastern Minnesota, the film’s tone of irony is established immediately. The snowy fields are clean and white, the hills etched softly in the pale sunlight, the stands of trees rise with the timeless authoritarian grace of nature. It is the human figures that cast the only ambiguous shadows in this pristine landscape, and the movie wastes no time in letting us know that, as in any good tragedy, it’s often the good, moral, and happy man – played here by Paxton in his best role and performance to date – who casts the longest shadow.

In part because of the corkscrew-like circumscription of Scott’s screenplay and in part because of Kivilo’s evocatively stark cinematography, A Simple Plan has the odd sensibility of a dark Jacobean drama laced with the mordant humor and ironic fatedness of some medieval Norse saga. There are some important surprises in the story, but much more significantly this is a tale of inevitabilities. Playwright Arthur Miller has said of his Death of a Salesman that the audience response he wanted to incite “was not ‘What happens next and why?’ so much as ‘Oh, God, of course.’” The “why” of A Simple Plan comes early: Hank (Paxton), his brother Jacob (Thornton), and Jacob’s buddy Lou (Briscoe) discover a small plane that had apparently crashed in the woods some time ago; its pilot is long dead and stashed onboard is $4.3 million. “It’s the American Dream in a goddamned gym bag!” crows Lou. “You work for the American Dream,” protests Hank. But he doesn’t protest long. Though we know where this is headed, the “what happens nexts” of this tale of corruption keep the suspense hissing along like a long-fused bomb. But it is specifically the “Oh, God, of course” toward which A Simple Plan ineluctably moves – fueled by the unadorned humanity of Paxton’s and Thornton’s performances – that separates this film from the pack of postmodern noir drivel and gives it staying power.

Playing by Heart

Playing by Heart writer-director Willard Carroll’s loosely linked cinematic short stories set in Los Angeles, is one of those rondelets calculated to provide viewers with short attention spans the illusion of having engaged in a substantive bout with truth and beauty. Each little subplot and vignette burgeon with life and death, and they all hurtle along in their parallel universes of urban anomie toward a rendezvous in which love will triumph, however bittersweetly. The curmudgeonly might ask: Manipulative and shallow? Absolutely. But enlivened by good actors and framed in the lush cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, even these polished, upscale interiors of the LA haute bourgeoisie can be seen to harbor genuinely vulnerable human hearts.

The older guard is represented with easy grace and wit by Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery, and Ellen Burstyn (whose scenes are among the film’s briefest and who proves once again that she can do more with three minutes than many actors can with 30); attractive mid-life by Dennis Quaid (cast interestingly against type) and Madeleine Stowe; the up-and-coming and television crossovers by Gillian Anderson, Anthony Edwards, Jon Stewart, Ryan Philippe, and Jay Mohr. All comport themselves well. Comporting herself so well that she almost tilts the balance of this dramedy merry-go-round every time she appears is Angelina Jolie.

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