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...
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...