Monday, March 17, 2014

Few And Far Between

You can’t always get what you want, as Hugh Laurie says to Lisa Edelstein in the pilot episode of HOUSE, that’s for sure. Life isn’t fair that way. We go to the movies to forget sometimes. We also write films where we wind up with the girl we always wanted, win the race that we never could, to be as good as we always want to be in what our dreams are, all that Heroes Journey nonsense and all that. But it doesn’t happen in life. Sometimes the films that stick to the ribs the most remember that they’re not trying to spoon feed us that sort of nice, pleasant, hopeful story, instead providing something bitter that makes us think about all the things we presumably go to the movies to forget about. Sometimes we don’t want those films. But sometimes they’re what we need.
I’ve always wondered what Billy Wilder thought of A SIMPLE PLAN, assuming that he saw it of course. He was still alive when the film was released in December 1998, after all, and it always seemed to me that it might be right up his alley, a portrayal of humanity at its bleakest and most pessimistic. It’s even the sort of film I could imagine he would have wanted to make, not that I can picture that director willingly spending much time in rural Minnesota in the dead of winter at whatever age he was then. The immortal DOUBLE INDEMNITY is of course the obvious comparison point for Wilder’s career as is ACE IN THE HOLE but I also think of the ever-increasing layers of pure, uncut cynicism that encroached on his films as he got older, even the comedies, in a way that made it sometimes seem like an all-encompassing view of humanity as he moved towards his winter years. Though directors including Mike Nichols, Ben Stiller and John Boorman had been attached to the project over the years, A SIMPLE PLAN was ultimately directed by Sam Raimi and it arrived in theaters almost four years after his previous film, the western THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. It had been even longer than that since I had sold him a copy of the paperback of the novel “A Simple Plan” by Scott Smith at a bookstore I was working at in Brentwood back in those days, as I’ve written about before. THE QUICK AND THE DEAD was not a box office success and this return to directing (the intervening years saw him working in television including executive producing the HERCULES and XENA shows) was a drastic departure from his previous films, dialing down the stylistic extremes of his visual style known from the all-holy EVIL DEAD series to practically nothing, essentially plunking the camera down on sticks and simply photographing the actors.
It was almost as if making this film was an experiment Raimi chose to conduct on himself to see what else he had to offer if his bag of tricks was taken away, making it not the Sam Raimi film for people who don’t like Sam Raimi films so much as Sam Raimi trying to find out what would happen if he tried to not make a ‘Sam Raimi film’. It also seems notable that once when asked to name his favorite film in an interview he chose John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, the influence of which can most definitely be seen in the film he made. What he accomplished was better than might have been expected, showing that he really did have something more to offer than the (admittedly brilliant) visual insanity of his earlier films which contained a feel of genuine, unmistakable humanity surrounding its darkness. Revisiting A SIMPLE PLAN after a number of years away I found myself having a complicated response to the film, as if now that I’m older some of the conclusions it reaches are that much more unpleasant to face. But the story still contains an enormously potent sting along with an undeniable power within its own simplicity.
During a cold rural Minnesota winter Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) is paying a New Years’ Eve visit to his parents’ grave with his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) when after a truck mishap the three chase after Jacob’s dog into the nearby woods. Soon they come across a small downed airplane which contains the body of the dead pilot and, more surprisingly, a bag containing over $4 million dollars in cash. After arguing over what to do with their newfound, and very probably stolen, riches the three agree to hold onto the money until the inevitable time the plane is found by the authorities and see who, if anyone, might be looking for the money. Hank shares the secret with pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) but things begin to go wrong almost immediately resulting in a further cover up of what they’ve done, an insistent Lou demanding his share and the ever watchful eye of the law represented by the local Sheriff (Chelcie Ross) as well as a suspicious FBI agent (Gary Cole) looking for a plane he’s heard went down in the area for reasons that he won’t reveal.
An offhand moment close to the midway point has Jacob enter the wrong hospital room when he arrives to visit Bridget Fonda’s Sarah who has just had her baby. None of these people are any different from each other, the moment seems to indicate, and it’s a key theme of A SIMPLE PLAN (screenplay by Scott Smith adapting his own novel) but of course Bill Paxton’s Hank discovers pretty quickly that he is different from others, just in the worst possible ways. A SIMPLE PLAN, like George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, begins with a trip a few siblings take to visit a parents’ grave and in both cases what occurs as a result is a complete and irrevocable break of that family unit, even if that family unit wasn’t very strong in the first place. And in this film the appearance by literal zombies aren’t necessary for this to happen. Hank expresses surprise that brother Jacob has been out to the cemetery recently, leaving Jacob to point out that nothing ever says that they only can go out there on the specific day tradition dictates. Hank, smart as he thinks he is, figures everything always has to go according to plan and that the rules state things are always going to get better as if just waiting while letting out the air out of his car’s tires as he demonstrates to Jacob in one scene, is going to make it all work out. No one emerges from A SIMPLE PLAN unscathed. Not even a kind thought or noble gesture comes out of it in one piece, no attempt to make things better works out. You can’t lose anything by trying, a character states at one point, and if A SIMPLE PLAN reveals anything it’s that can be all you really need to lose.
It’s a harsh and bitter lesson that the film passes along about what money does, what lying does to the soul, with a little bit of GREED along with TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE as well. To be honest that lesson has more sting for me now than it once did and returning to it now I’m not only struck by that realization but also in wondering if maybe a few of the more drastic actions barely even a half-hour into the film are a little too much to swallow at first, even in the context of a dark crime drama, to the point that I almost found myself briefly checking out this time around while wondering about certain characters’ immediate acceptance of such horrific events. But as the film goes on and the quicksand they’re caught in gets increasingly deeper I find myself accepting what they wind up doing even more, cringing as I become all the more aware of the desperate humanity evident in even the most horrific moments as they turn on each other. And these aren’t even just moments of extreme jeopardy but when Hank learns the truth about certain things, about his families past, as wife Sarah plots their next move while holding their newborn and the desperation just zeroes in on their faces. It’s those faces that the film pays attention to. Very little else about A SIMPLE PLAN tries to be particularly distinctive visually outside of the oppressive feel of all that snow, very few images seem designed to call attention to themselves outside of those crows flying over the plane (maybe a bit much, actually, revisiting the film now).
More than anything in directing the film Raimi seems to be paying attention to the text and through that paying attention to the actors saying those lines and performing those horrible actions, almost making them as responsible for the film as he is. Instead of the elaborate camera moves he is so known for in the past, here a simple cut to a close up of characters at certain points saying all that needs to be said with Danny Elfman’s score trickling around the edges of scenes with Hank not knowing exactly how much he should be worrying at one time or another along with subtly effective camera work by DP Alar Kivilo (who also shot Harold Ramis’ THE ICE HARVEST, another dark tale co-starring Billy Bob Thornton about people in wintery conditions scrambling after stolen money). With the exception of a few very specific moments it’s maybe the one Sam Raimi film that doesn’t feel prepared within an inch of his life (a reminder that I must revisit his 2000 film THE GIFT which was co-written by Billy Bob Thornton) and he seems more willing to let its actors move around the edges of the frame than ever before. A few scenes feel almost a little too loose as a result, as if he maybe could have gotten more coverage from other angles but chose to go with a simpler overall approach with his pleasure at suspense coming through on occasion like getting the pleasure out of being stuck in that plane or fumbling around looking for the right sort of bullet for a gun. And he pulls off a few confrontations that are almost unbearably tense in their messy realism, even on repeat viewings, as a result. Almost most surprising about this very dark film is how it feels like he made a decision to not go overboard on the blood at certain points, as if he wanted to focus on the performances in the midst of this carnage as opposed to setting up the squibs for the takes with even certain particularly grisly moments occurring in partial darkness.
In some ways the film for Raimi seems to be as much of an attempt as what his old friends the Coen Brothers did with the snowbound setting of FARGO and the kidnapping-gone-wrong plot in the background of this film seems like some sort of mirror of that film’s inciting incident—another time and another place maybe the Coens would have been the filmmakers to attempt the more sober version of this sort of story. Even a few specific moments here oddly correlate to FARGO, as if attempting to provide a non-arch mirror to the earlier film – Paxton trying to truthfully explain something illogical to an irate customer recalls William H. Macy and his sneaky unloading of the Truecoat as does a moment of Paxton collecting himself before calling the police after something horrible has happened, not trying to feign tears but silently rehearsing for the lies that have to come. The intent is different of course, just as where the two films resolve themselves. FARGO finds some sort of redemption in its carnage, delicacy in the lead character played by Frances McDormand, the impending arrival of her baby and her husband with the 2 cent stamp. A SIMPLE PLAN has a pregnant character as well only any sense of purity and innocence that we got from a glimpse of her belly early on is gone by the end. Also unlike FARGO, the baby has already arrived when it ends but there’s no sense of redemption coming from the cries heard in the next room.
The original novel is arguably even more cynical and any film made from it could have taken things to further extremes. One character exits the book much earlier and this adjustment to the film seems correct in how it makes it much more about the two brothers and a liquor store climax in the book which takes everything to its logical, most horrific extreme, read as vividly cinematic (it wouldn’t have been at all out of place in the blood soaked Tarantino 90s) and yet I can understand why it was left out. Maybe someone felt that it was a few steps too far but more than that as things have played out once the films key relationship reaches its climactic point the story is in effect over. Nothing else really matters.
A TV news report early in the film pertaining to the plot is followed by a lighter item in which the onscreen anchor opens with ‘playful pooches or killer canines’, a question that seems like an editorial comment from the film on the characters of Hank and Jacob. This bit of dark humor almost feels like one of the only blatantly Raimi-like touches in the film, instead focusing on how horrific it all is. It’s those close-ups that linger, the questions of what it really costs to have a life, to be happy—Hank repeatedly telling Jacob that it’ll be ok and just stick to the story, Jacob’s admission that he’s never kissed a girl, Sarah stating flat out to Hank what their future holds if he lets this slip away, Hank realizing in his own face what he has to do at the very end. There’s no chance for hope and although no one wanders off into madness like Edward G. Robinson after his crimes in Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET maybe the punishment here is worse. No one else is going to come after the characters who remain technically unscathed after the end credits roll. They just have to live their lives.
In some ways it’s hard not to think of Bill Paxton in this film as partly also about Paxton wanting to be the leading man, correctly coming off as ‘normal’ and eager (this reminds me of how good he was in last year’s 2 GUNS playing a, well, supporting role), trying to get everyone to go along with his plan but things just can’t go in a straight line. He imbues the role with a sense of decency that gets totally misplaced before the character even realizes it and as the rock up against his two main co-stars with showier parts he's goddamn heartbreaking. Billy Bob Thornton, playing a role that caused someone I saw it with at the time turn to men forty-five minutes in asking when Billy Bob Thornton was going to show up, takes this goofy looking guy with barely a decent idea in the world and infuses him with not just an unexpected layer of intelligence, like during a key scene where he lays in on his brother for a reason that it isn’t entirely clear right away, but also laying clear how much Jacob is just a bottomless soul of pain that can never fully be cleared out. In the end, Thornton’s performance is devastating and unforgettable.
Bridget Fonda (I miss her) is also extremely powerful, taking a role that seems designed as ‘the wife’ and quietly laying the groundwork for her most devastating moments late in the film with the tone of her voice as she spits out the phrase “checking out books” coming off as if she’s giving herself a lifetime sentence. There’s also strong supporting work from Brent Briscoe, Chelcie Ross (recently Conrad Hilton on MAD MEN) and Becky Ann Baker (currently seen on GIRLS) plus I’ve always particularly liked Gary Cole’s complete poker face as FBI Agent Baxter which doesn’t reveal his true motives until the last possible second.
A SIMPLE PLAN was released by Paramount, just as some of Billy Wilder’s most acclaimed films in the 40s and 50s were, but it didn’t receive the same sort of attention (only $16 million at the box office), even with a favorable critical response and two Oscar nominations for Billy Bob Thornton and Scott Smith’s screenplay—did Wilder mark it down on his ballot? But it did help to revive Sam Raimi’s directing career and by the time it was in theaters he was already in production on his next film FOR LOVE OF THE GAME starring Kevin Costner. And a few years later there would be SPIDER-MAN, a film where he seemed to have figured out a way to fuse his style with paying attention to the actors caught up in and reaping the benefits of what he chose to experiment with here. But I have a fondness for late 90s Raimi, a brief spurt of films where it was like he was trying to do something different, testing himself, pushing himself, something that I wish directors like him did more. It was a while since seeing A SIMPLE PLAN when I pulled it out to write this and I imagine that it will be a long time before I revisit the film again. It’s just too sad, too disturbing, much more than it was for me at one time. We all need money. Hey, I could use some right now. Plus some of its emotions make me think of some of my own family-related matters that sometimes pop up in the back of the brain, like an abandoned house that lingers as a part of your past, a past which will never really die. A lot’s changed for me over the years, but some things never change at all. And you still can’t always get what you want, let alone what you sometimes need.


Her, Suzanne76 said...

wow. Well, it seems that you are surely partly responsible for Raimi making this great film. This was my favorite film of the year when it came out. A truly terrific movie that, may Cinema forgive me, i have failed to remember and revisit since the 90s. I will quickly remedy that. thanks for the great writing and, as always, the reflective insight.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Her, Suzanne76 --

Many, many thanks to you for saying that, it means a great deal. Hope you still like it on your revisit!