Editor’s note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
Sometimes you need a feel-good movie, and sometimes you just want to disappear into a thriller, the kind where good people get lost in the darkness. A masterful example of the genre is Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan,” a movie that’s stayed with me since I first watched it 22 years ago, probably on a cold November night. It’s everything I look for in a thriller: atmospheric, character-driven, not too violent (though Raimi can’t resist a little blood) and utterly haunting; you watch wondering what you would do, if you were in these unlucky characters’ footsteps.
“A Simple Plan,” based on a taut novel by Scott B. Smith (who also wrote the smart screenplay), seems to be constantly asking us that question: What would you do? Its main character, Hank (Bill Paxton), is a small-town everyman: He keeps the books at the local grain mill; happily anticipates a baby with his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda); and seems to be on a friendly first-name basis with everyone in town. But life changes quickly, on a fateful New Year’s Eve: On a routine trip to visit his parents’ grave, with brother Jake (Billy Bob Thornton) and friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), the men find a small plane crashed in the snow, with a dead pilot and a bag containing millions of dollars in cash. Says an agog Lou, “It’s the American Dream, in a goddamn gym bag.”
It’s a life-changing amount of money, even split three ways, and even honest Hank quickly concludes that maybe, just maybe, they can get away with keeping it; ever the accountant, he insists on hiding it away for a few months until the snow melts. Maybe nobody’s looking for it? It’s quickly clear that none of these men are smart enough to be criminals — Hank handles the money with his bare hands; Jake cheerfully tells the sheriff that he thinks he saw a crashed plane — but into this strange new alliance they go. Even Sarah, blinded by the idea of the money, quickly transforms from innocent librarian to Lady Macbeth, advising Hank on strategy even as, inevitably, the weight of the secret begins to take a tragic toll.
Along the way, we come to understand more about the two brothers; how Jake, with his taped-together glasses and threadbare life, resents Hank’s slightly more upscale existence (their late father, we quietly learn, lost the family farm, over-mortgaged to pay for Hank’s college tuition) and dreams that the money might buy him something more like Hank’s life. Thornton, slouching against the cold inside wrinkled layers of clothing, makes Jake a sad, vulnerable shadow of a man; his performance, surprisingly delicate, was Oscar-nominated (a rare honor for a thriller). At first it’s easy to dismiss Jake, yet the character grows more complex as the movie goes on. “Do you ever feel evil?” an agonized Jake finally asks Hank, in a moment of quiet devastation.
Watching Paxton is bittersweet; the actor died in 2017, and you wish he’d gotten more roles like this one. You can see both sides of Hank fighting with each other on Paxton’s face, in the set of his jaw and the growing coldness in his eyes — this is a good man who can see the beckoning light on the other side of a doorway, and struggles with whether and how to step over it. It’s a performance full of detail — Hank stutters when he’s nervous, and smiles too big — with the key to the character summed up in a line spoken by Jake: “Nobody would ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done.”
Raimi wraps it all in icy winter atmosphere; a time when the Christmas decorations have started looking a little tired, and falling snow covers everything — including footprints. We see, twice, the ramshackle farmhouse where the brothers grew up; now abandoned, its torn lace curtains dance in the cold wind. It’s an eerily beautiful image of a place once warm, a place Jake dreams of making his own again. But dreams, in “A Simple Plan,” are dangerous. You watch it knowing the characters can’t right the wrongs they’ve done, but hoping — even 22 years later — that somehow, they might.