December 5, 2007

Underrated MOTM: A Simple Plan (1998)

December's Underrated MOTM is a little seen film that was deservedly praised as a "quietly devastating thriller" by the NYT's Janet Maslin, and as "one of the year's best films" by Roger Ebert upon its release in December 1998. I'm fairly certain it was the first movie I saw at the then-General Cinema theatres at the Mall of America, but I can't remember why Matt, Nicole and I went there to see it. Could it have inexplicably only been playing there? Anyway, I went to it again a week later and it has since remained in or bordered on my all-time top ten list.

A Simple Plan is based on Scott B. Smith's 1993 novel of the same name, and Smith adapted the screenplay himself (which is extremely rare), but admits that he made a number of changes for the film. A rumor that still shocks me is that Ben Stiller was originally set to direct, and at different times both Nicolas Cage and Brad Pitt were attached to star. Believe me, if you've seen it you know how ridiculous that would have been. Fortunately,
Sam Raimi (who had previously directed Darkman and Army of Darkness and has since directed For Love of the Game and the first Spider-Man) ended up directing it, and the casting was pitch-perfect. Bill Paxton was coming out of a career decade (Navy SEALS, Tombstone, True Lies, Apollo 13, Twister, and Titanic); Bridget Fonda had a nice indie streak going and had just starred in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown; and Billy Bob Thornton was just two years removed from his Academy Award-winning performance in Sling Blade. Aside from these, two additional performances are particularly outstanding: Brent Briscoe and especially Gary Cole, who will of course be forever known for his role just a few months later as Bill Lumbergh in 1999's Office Space. The strength of these five performances cannot be overstated - the overall acting in A Simple Plan is some of the best you're ever likely to see.

The plot of A Simple Plan is, in fact, pretty simple. Hank Mitchell (Paxton) and his hapless brother Jacob (Thornton) find a dead pilot and $4 million dollars in the wreckage of a small plane in the middle of the woods in rural Minnesota. The plane was thought to have disappeared; no one is looking for it. After some deliberation, the brothers decide to keep the money - Hank to care for his wife and baby daughter, Jacob to get a new lease on life. This "simple plan" goes awry, to say the least, as the brothers struggle to keep the secret from Hank's wife (Fonda), Jacob's friend (Briscoe), and local and federal law enforcement (Cole). There are moments of terrifying suspense, and you watch in shock as the morality of the characters is worn away as they become more and more desperate. Since you're initially so sympathetic to the characters, the disturbing conclusion leaves you crushed. It's an excellent "What would you do?" discussion starter.

It's not as if A Simple Plan wasn't well received by the critics. It received Oscar nominations for Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Thornton), and it maintains a 91% rating on RT. Nevertheless, I consider it underrated because few people have seen it and even fewer discuss it as one of the best movies of the 90's. Even here in Minnesota you never hear about it, a surprising phenomenon in a place that takes every opportunity to celebrate anything that could elevate its national reputation (see Fargo or this month's Juno). Anyway, A Simple Plan has incredible acting and gripping moments of suspense, while never needing to rely on cheap scares or gruesome scenes - even the musical score and cinematography are excellent! I recommend it for a cold winter's night rental.


  1. I absolutely love this movie. I went and saw it in the theater when it ran--probably one of the last chances I'd get. I read Roger Ebert's review and was motivated to go see it. I was just in a movie seeing mood one night. I was already married and it was a weeknight. For whatever reason my wife wasn't interested. Probably didn't want to go to bed late and/or spend the money.

    I've seen it 5 times and it gets better every time I watch it. The last time I watched it (this past weekend) I think I must have said about 5 times, "I can't believe how I never hear anyone talk about how great this movie is!" I'm still stunned that it didn't even make its budget back at the box office. This movie is perfect. Well, except maybe the part about how long it took Hank to go get his "hat". And Gary Cole freaking rocks in this movie. Too bad there wasn't room for more of his character in the story. I can't say enough good things about this movie!

    1. Hi Grant, thanks for sharing. With Bill Paxton's recent passing I've been thinking a lot about this movie. Frankly I can't believe it was never mentioned in any of his career highlights. It is so rich in every way and I stand by my claim it's one of the best movies of the 1990's, period.


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