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Moriarty looks at A SIMPLE PLAN

Harry here with Moriarty's review of A SIMPLE PLAN. Now folks, I simply must warn you to not go waltzing into this film thinking of films like EVIL DEAD 2 or ARMY OF DARKNESS or THE QUICK AND THE DEAD or DARKMAN... No. This is a wonderfully dramatic film, completely unlike anything you would have ever expected from Mr Raimi. So... without further ado, here's Moriarty....

Hey, Head Geek...

"Moriarty" here.

I was recently working on my latest experiment when one of my henchmen came in, chewing on a videocassette. It's a nasty habit that I've tried to break him of, but he does it with anything he likes. He doesn't consider a STAR WARS figure truly broken in until it's got teeth marks all over the skull. When I took the tape away from him, I was shocked to see that it was one of my new favorites. I keep meaning to send you a review of it, but I wouldn't have remembered if it hadn't been for his blunder. Only for this reason will I spare his life. You've had quite a few reviews for this film already, so I debated whether or not to throw my voice into the discussion, and ended up realizing that the whole point of this site is to help build excitement for great films and warn people against dogs. Because of this, I decided to send you my thoughts on the film.

As I write this, it's early morning, December 8. I still haven't seen RUSHMORE, HURLYBURLY, A BUG'S LIFE, THE THIN RED LINE, PRINCE OF EGYPT, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, and a few other films that will be released before Dec. 31, but as of this date, this morning, there is no finer film that I've seen this year than the exceptional, brilliant, powerfully performed A SIMPLE PLAN.

I've been a Sam Raimi fan since the early days. I've always enjoyed his work in a kicky film geek over the top drunk on adrenaline kind of way, but I've never thought of him as a "great" filmmaker until now. I always remember the stories about the early days in Hollywood, when Raimi, the Coens, Holly Hunter, and Frances McDormand were all sharing a house. The concentration of talent under that roof was amazing, and everyone's gone on to sterling careers -- except Sam. I mean, no matter how much I love his work, it's hard to have a discussion with someone about EVIL DEAD 2 if they've never seen it. They give you that funny "are you nuts?" look, and you end up trying to justify your love of the film. DARKMAN, ARMY OF DARKNESS, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD... there's no denying they're fun, but they're not what I would call "classics." And as far as his TV work goes, even I can't defend HERCULES and XENA.

That's why it pleases me beyond words to be able to say in all confidence that A SIMPLE PLAN is a classic. It's not just the best film of this year, either. It's one of the finest films I've seen this decade. It's going to be remembered as a high point in acting in the '90s, with two of the cast members doing the best work they've ever done in their careers.

A number of filmmakers have dealt with the subject of greed and its effect on people in movies over the years. Danny Boyle made a great debut with his wicked SHALLOW GRAVE just a few years back. There is, of course, the great TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, as well as any number of films in between. But what Raimi and Scott Smith, the film's writer, have done here is something deeper and more profound than just another film on greed. In fact, if I had to offer up a summary of the film, I wouldn't mention the $4.4 million in the woods at all. I would say it's about two brothers who have never been close. Something happens that forces them to deal with each other in a more intimate fashion than they ever have as adults, and gradually they become aware of each other's true natures.

This is a film about relationships, and they are mapped out with an intelligence that seems impossible considering that this is Smith's first screenplay. For those of you who haven't followed this thing through its entire torturous development process, Smith's novel came out at the beginning of the decade to great acclaim. I read it then and thought it would make a good thriller. The ending was incredibly violent and moralistic, one of the book's primary flaws. Since then, Smith has been writing draft after draft after draft of this script, working with directors like Ben Stiller, John Dahl, and John Boorman. All that effort has paid off in one of the finest adaptations of a novel I've ever seen. He's managed to deepen all the characters, giving them human faces and rough edges that they didn't have in the book. The money is only the catalyst in this film now... it's these people that really make it all work.

Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton have worked together before, resulting in what was my favorite Paxton role until now in Carl Franklin's excellent ONE FALSE MOVE. This time out, they play brothers, and the two of them seem to bring out the best in one another as performers. Maybe it's just that Paxton has aged and matured, or maybe it's that he's never had a script this subtle and smart before, but he is truly a revelation here. As Hank, the "lucky" brother, he's going through the motions of what he believes is a happy life. He's got a wife, steady work, a baby on the way, a house of his own. We learn that he went off to college and came back to this. He may have escaped briefly, but he's tied to the small unnamed town where he lives just as much as his "loser" brother Jacob. As Jacob, Billy Bob gives a performance that ranks among the finest I have ever seen. I wasn't a raving SLING BLADE fan -- I tend not to fall for "gimmicky" performances too much -- but this time out I would give him the Oscar and just skip the entire nomination process. This is a man who has dealt with a staggering amount of private pain, but who has refused to become bitter or ugly or angry because of it. There's a streak of decency in Jacob that makes him the only character on screen that we can truly identify with. He's the only one in this film who seems concerned with the toll this whole thing will take on his soul. He may be the only one with a soul worth worrying about.

This brings us to Bridget Fonda. Like Thornton, she hits a career high here. There is nothing in her filmography that suggests she would be capable of this small-town Lady MacBeth. When she first sees the bag of money that Paxton brings home, her eyes light up and no matter how much she speaks of morality or right and wrong after that, we know what she's about. Her whispered suggestions to Paxton in the middle of the night, her calculations even as she nurses their daughter for the first time -- these details only add to her utterly convincing portrait of the real evil that hides inside people, waiting for something to come along and activate it. She has a scene with Paxton in which she lays out a possible future for them that literally took my breath away. She is wonderful, and the Academy owes her this year.

Brent Briscoe is the last actor of the major four, and he's a lesser-known name and face. That should change, though, since his performance as Lou is solid, strong work, the very model of what a supporting performance should be. Lou starts off looking like the heavy, the bad guy, the one who will start the shitstorm, but part of the film's seductive power is watching how unequipped Lou is with his simple greed to deal with real evil when he comes face to face with it. The finest scene in the movie involves Lou, Hank, and Jacob drunk, all of them sitting in Lou's living room in the middle of the night. Even Hitchcock himself couldn't have staged this scene any better. This is suspense filmmaking elevated to art.

In the end, the contributions of everyone only support and strengthen the work done by Raimi, who declares himself one of America's finest working filmmakers with this picture. His control is evident in every scene, every image, the way these actors relate, the masterful pacing of the picture, the gathering sense of dread. One of my favorite touches by Raimi is the constant presence of the crows in the woods, always huddled in the edge of the frame, looking down at everything, taking it all in. There's real menace here, but Raimi never tips his hand. He is so restrained here that it would be easy to dismiss this as a "selling-out" of his signature style -- except that it's not. Raimi's always been about communicating with what is seen as much as what is heard, and this film is the same way. He's just chosen the proper visual style for this story. Instead of forcing it to fit his hyperactive camerawork of the past, he has totally submerged himself into the chilly, frozen landscape that this morality tale plays out against.

The end result is one of the most satisfying American films of recent memory, that rare picture that transcends genre to become something more, something finer than just an exercise in style. This is a film that cuts to the very heart of what drives us as people. It is a mirror of our worst natures, and it is a biting look at what can draw that nature out. If you miss A SIMPLE PLAN in the theater, you have no one to blame but yourself. I'm telling you right now -- this is one you will never forget.

I'd stay and rave more, but it looks like my henchman just put an entire DVD player in his mouth. I'm going to have to go decide if I'm going to pry it loose or just drive it the rest of the way home. Until next time...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Dec. 9, 1998, 9:36 a.m. CST

    That does it....

    by greedo1028

    I'm seeing this movie on Friday. Nothing can keep me from it.

  • Dec. 9, 1998, 10:59 a.m. CST

    release date

    by Lloyd Dobbler

    When does this movie open wide? I am really looking forward to seeing it.

  • Dec. 9, 1998, 11:08 a.m. CST


    by Kubrick

    I would just like to say it's great to have Moriarty reviewing movies again. The newbie reviews sounded too much like press releases and it's great to have one of our favorite movie reviews working again for ACIN! THREE CHEERS FOR MORIARTY! Also, I'll make sure to see A Simple Plan...if the movie lives up to the buzz it's been getting, I will be seeing one of 1998's greatest movies.

  • Dec. 9, 1998, 12:13 p.m. CST

    Ah, bliss...

    by Pennifer

    Mmmm... I feel sated. Sometimes when you begin to expect excellence, you find yourself strongly disappointed. Not so with Moriarty. I have no idea how good A Simple Plan is, though I will find out as soon as humanly possible, but that's not the point. Moriarty reviews give exactly what a film fan is hungry for - NEWS. He covers everything from what happened to bring this puppy to the screen to the performances to cute lil tidbits about roommates that bring great images of Holly and Fran in PJs and giggling. And what's more, he's articulate and confident. Even without those oh-so-cute little openings and closings, no one else even comes close to this kind of writing on this site. Thank you, sugar plum. On to A Simple Plan: read the book a million years ago.... and really enjoyed it. I waited patiently for the film. Had my doubts about Fonda whom I haven't really enjoyed since Shag. I hope she's really good.. and this isn't just a "Sharon Stone in Casino" situation. You know what I mean... that whole "She is a pretty horrific actress but she was actually decent in this! My God, slap that woman with an Oscar Nod" syndrome. That would disappoint me. I've long since believed that Paxton had more in him than has been shown. And Billy Bob. Sigh. You don't need me to tell you how sublime this man is. I guess my point is... I was looking forward to this project ANYWAY... but Moriarty has made me drool and slobber with anticipation. As is the popular phrase around these here parts, I'd give my left nut to see this flick today. If'n I had one. YAY Raimi.

  • Dec. 9, 1998, 7:08 p.m. CST

    Uh, Yeah...

    by Carv

    ...What they said. I've seen A SIMPLE PLAN as well and agree with almost everything in Moriarty's review. (I do, in fact, think Fonda was better in JACKIE BROWN and that this is a "Sharon Stone in CASINO"-type situation--not that Sharon Stone can't act, because she can.) Incidentally, sorry if I freaked you out, M. I'm still an admirer and I still wish you all the best with the entertaining mask flick.

  • Dec. 10, 1998, 10:17 a.m. CST


    by Rocqueja

    Thanks for a great review Moriarty! It's a nice change to have you back reviewing movies in an intelligent and thoughtful way! Don't get me wrong I like Hallenbeck well enough but he just doesn't compare...

  • Dec. 10, 1998, 11:07 a.m. CST

    simple plan...not so great

    by mofo

    I have seen A Simple Plan and it's not as great as everyone is making it out to be. Basically it rely's on every character being dumber than the audience. Billy Bob Thornton is okay, but he has a really bad scene where he delves into his high school life that sounds lifted from Character Development 101 from some hamfisted scriptwriting magazine. As for the finale...Was that really the best conclusion they could come up with...a shoot out. Boy, I've never seen that before. Forget A Simple Plan, for some great 1998 films, check out Happiness, Life is Beautiful, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, and Men with Guns...4 TRULY original films.

  • Dec. 10, 1998, 1:40 p.m. CST

    when is this.....

    by smallcheeta

    ....coming out? Seen release dates as early as Dec. 4. I would think two weeks would be long enuf for it to go wide.

  • Dec. 11, 1998, 9:51 a.m. CST


    by Rocqueja

    I have to agree with mofo about Life is Beautiful but Happiness was despeartely overrated. It may have had original interpretations of suburban life but it's concept of "all my neighbours are freaks" has been done all too many times. I'm also tired of shocking being considered original (Kids etc.)

  • Dec. 14, 1998, 12:18 a.m. CST

    Read Book & Saw Movie

    by Ruh Roh

    I bought the paperback of "Plan" cause Stephen King called it "The suspense novel of the year (1993)". But until chapter 6 (When Hank and Jacob go to Lou's house) I couldn't see what the big deal was... nothing was really happening. Whoa! What a difference a chapter makes. Only then did I see the water start to boil. So I couldn't wait to see the movie and I really thought it was VERY FAITHFUL to the novel (except for the ending of course.) And Moriarty, although I agree that the book's ending was violent and overly moralistic, you could say that about the movie's finale as well.

  • Dec. 14, 1998, 7:49 a.m. CST


    by mofo

    Forget about Happiness or Life is Beautiful, how was A Simple Plan? Shitty. And the novel sucked too. Here's an idea, a man finds a bag of money, keeps it and lives happily ever after. I think the Coens have their own genre on the evils of money, let alone hundreds of other Hollywood movies, which is exactly what A Simple Plan is...A FUCKING HOLLYWOOD MOVIE!!! Predictable as hell. Here's another idea, use your fucking head Bill Paxton, instead of killing everyone who gets in your way. Correction: read, use your head Scott Smith, because you're a shitty writer who just jumbles cliches of far better movies together and spews out his cinemasturbation called A Simple Plan. P.S. I agree with the review in the Globe and Mail that stated Billy Bob's performance was a pair of glasses and hick-speak that made him come across like a reject from slap shot. Although he reminded me of the redneck from the Simpson's. P.P.S. I was right...Sam Raimi CANNOT DIRECT DRAMA, stick to the wacky camera buddy, it's all you're good at.

  • Jan. 26, 1999, 10:41 p.m. CST

    simple plan

    by motorcycle boy

    It saddens me when someone is too cynical to enjoy a beautiful film like A simple plan.