Sunday, 3 April 2011

Bring Back Bridget Fonda: Review #4. A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi, 1998)

Greed is veiled under a thin layer of snow in the excellent A Simple Plan (1998)

The title of Sam Raimi's excellent whitewashed thriller is something of an oxymoron. Plans are never simple - even the best laid ones. The film is about simple plans devolving into grand schemes; lies, ambition and greed give way to violence, the capacity for which lies deep within even the most normal of men... even those working at the grain mill in a small Minnesota town. Such a man is Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) who, along with lonely brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and his drunken friend Lou (Brent Biscoe), finds a plane deep in the woods outside their town. Inside it lies a bag. Inside the bag lies $4.4 million. What would you do?

A Simple Plan is the film about their decisions, and the lengths to which they are driven for the prospect of a new life. A life without concern of paying the bills, running a car or putting food on the table. The three men have agreed to split the money three ways, but tensions are already present. Hank and Lou don't get along; Hank probably resents Lou for keeping his brother stuck in a rut, and Lou hates Hank for his education and seemingly idyllic existence. Jacob is the middle man who just wants to find a reason to stay in this world - he's never kissed a girl, and at one points recounts a sad moment from his teenage years when a girl was bet $100 to stay with him for four weeks. How did they ever imagine this could end well? "Those things are always waiting for something to die so they can eat it" says Jacob at one point, in reference to foxes. Really he's talking about people, in particular the splintering trio he's a part of.

Hank's wife is Sarah, played by Bridget Fonda. In many ways she has another thankless role as the 'moral voice', but dig a little deeper and you'll find that she's the axis of destruction on which the men rotate. She's every bit the loving, devoted wife of course, working at a dead-end job to support the husband who supports her. It's a two-way street, this marriage, and an empathetic, understanding one. When Hank presents to her the hypothetical situation of finding $4.4 million in drug money (that's what the men conclude it is, on the basis of pure fantasy) and keeping it, she laughs the prospect off and says she could never do such a thing. After all, wouldn't somebody be looking for it? But when the money is laid out on the kitchen table her tune changes. Sarah is pregnant, and that amount of cash could secure the family for the rest of their lives. Soon she has a plan of her own: return $500,000 to the plane. "No one would walk away from that much money" she says, believing the plan would put them "beyond suspicion." Predictably it goes sour, and ends up in murder. In fact, all of Sarah's plans seem to end up in bloodshed, as she becomes increasingly cunning and desperate...

On paper Sarah's actions seem a little unbelievable but Fonda's performance grounds her with realism and gives us reason to care. She's part of the community, and a caring wife. She's always cheery and contented. But she's secretly frustrated with middle-class life and routine, and Fonda releases the internal feelings of her character through subtle body language and glances. When greed starts to consume her it does so in a rapidly disconcerting way, and her husband follows her instructions to the letter. Why? Because on the surface Sarah is lovable and warm; the sort of woman we all want to end up with. And the ending of the film doesn't wrap up the characters with neat conclusions; they are complex and fraught with dual emotions. When an exciting twist announces itself for the finale Sarah begs Hank not to go back into the woods; she just wants her husband to stay alive. It would seem that the money no longer matters. But her final scene would say different, as she desperately scrambles to stop Hank from burning the money. She still longs for that perfect life... the idyllic one that lies in captured moments of happiness, which we frame and mount on our walls. The one that gave Lou the false impression of what was, in reality, a repressed marriage. It's not that Hank and Sarah were unhappy - in fact, they seem deeply in love. But they're just like any real couple. There are things they don't say, and elements of each other they don't know about. Sarah never spoke of feeling trapped, and he never knew of her greed. We never would of either, if it weren't for her simple laid plans and the burning ambition that lies behind her sweetly deceptive eyes. Some would say Sarah is a supporting character, but I say she's what the film is all about. And Fonda carries it wonderfully...

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