What to Watch This Weekend: ‘A Simple Plan’

Sam Raimi's critically acclaimed crime thriller hits YouTube.

January 26, 2018 5:00 am
Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Brent Briscoe in 'A Simple Plan.' (Paramount Pictures.)
Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Brent Briscoe in 'A Simple Plan.' (Paramount Pictures.)

Welcome to Watch This Weekend, where every Friday, Darian Lusk, comedian and writer living large in Brooklyn—will gently recommend something to stream, play or listen to. Follow him on Twitter @eatpraylusk to send suggestions for future installments.

What would you do if you found a duffle bag in the middle of the woods filled with money?

This may sound like a hypothetical question posed by your freshman year philosophy professor, or by Chidi in The Good Place, but it is the premise of a masterful 1998 Sam Raimi film you should watch this weekend.

A Simple Plan, now streaming on Amazon Video, centers on Minnesota family man Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his unemployed, slightly dense brother Jacob (peak 90s Billy Bob Thornton), and their loose cannon, equally dense drinking buddy, Lou. Together on one snowy, quiet night, the trio stumbles upon a crashed plane with a dead pilot and $4 million in Benjamins. It’s definitely not too good to be true.

Jacob and Lou argue that it’s probably drug money anyway. Who could be looking for it? “You work for the American Dream–you don’t steal it,” Hank tells them. Unlike his blue collar counterparts, he is college-educated — and a little holier-than-thou — living by his father’s traditional, white-picket-fence formula for happiness. But even he knows this mantra is more of a bumper sticker than an answer. All of them have lived in the same rural town, on the same track their whole lives. How could they resist?

For Jacob, a lonely, buck-toothed, 38-year-old—Thornton is so great in this, especially in one confrontational, table-turning scene— the duffel bag represents fulfilling his pipe dream of restoring the family farm he and Hank grew up on. It also signifies a way for him to find a wife and maybe even get a first kiss (I mean, give the poor guy a break). Lou sees a future of not owing people money and being able to go hunting/be the loudest guy in the bar in peace. For Hank’s child-carrying wife Sarah, who is roped in right away and let’s just say is very “down to clown” (Bridget Fonda, whose performance I’d describe as “70 percent bangs”), it would mean not having to clip coupons or work at the town library anymore. However, if the crows lurking above them in the snowy woods (it’s kind of an obvious metaphor) represent anything, it’s that evil will take hold.

Sam Raimi (pre-Spiderman, post-Evil Dead) offers uncharacteristically subtle, tasteful direction that is so gently well done that you don’t even notice him — in a great way. His hand gestures to the endless minutiae that is living in a small town where nothing changes, where a fresh coat of snow can absolve a person of their sins. If only temporarily.

That Raimi is an occasional writing partner to the Coen Brothers shines through. There’s lost money, winter, heck — even Billy Bob is in the Fargo universe. It’s a well-made, slept-on film in a year of great films that will pleasantly surprise you. Unless you were expecting a biopic about the band Simple Plan and Tom DeLonge’s alleged contact with aliens. That film, I will make.

What makes the performances in A Simple Plan so good is that these actors are given space to act. Scenes often stretch longer than you expect, with scene-stealing monologues — two by Thornton and one by Fonda —reaching uncomfortable lengths. At the center is the brothers’ relationship: Jacob clearly resents his brother for being not just educated, but well-adjusted and happy. Meanwhile, it feels like the world has forgotten about Jacob. As Hank, Paxton leads the way, frantically trying to contain his frustratingly dumb partners in crime and just keeping a lid on a boiling pot. But it’s Thornton that makes the movie.

As their plans start to unravel, tragically, so does the concept of the American Dream. Was it ever really attainable through this money? Was it ever attainable without it? Raimi portrays these disillusioned, vulnerable, perpetually stuck blue-collar characters expertly. They’ve been failed by this promise. And they are desperate. Is there a loose connection to be made to the events of 2016? Who’s to say? Let’s just enjoy the movie.

Other great things to watch this weekend:

Netflix: A Futile and Stupid Gesture (Added Jan. 26)

You’ve seen a lot of National Lampoon movies, but there’s never been a movie about National Lampoon. This David Wain biopic depicts the hilarious rise of the anarchist Harvard publication with great performances from Will Forte and Domhnall Gleeson cosplaying as Howard Stern (yes!).

HBO: High Maintenance Season 2 (Added Jan. 19)

This comedic web series-turned HBO series about a bicycling drug dealer in New York City began its second season last week. The premiere episode, “Globo,” is a stirring, excellent portrayal of how different people handle an unspecified national tragedy. It sets the bar ambitiously, well, high for this season!

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