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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 2.0° F  Fair
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A Simple Plan
There is never anything simple about the plan in A Simple Plan. From the beginning, the plan is hastily concocted, convoluted, messy. When a small-town accountant, Hank (Bill Paxton), his dim-bulb brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and the town drunk, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find 40 million dollars in a small crashed plane in the woods, things are sure to go terribly, terribly wrong.

Hank works for the local feed store in a nothing town in Minnesota. We first encounter him performing some mild groveling before his boss to get a little personal time. We observe that his wife is very pregnant. We see him use that personal time to take a poinsettia to his parents' grave; he's a family man. Hank is everyman--he's only sketched in. We know only what we need to know: He has a nice house, maybe some job frustrations, a nice, limited little life. An upstanding guy, maybe, but he thinks too highly of himself. He's never been tested.

When the three men find the plane and the money, the story turns almost medieval, a dark fairy tale. It's as if Death himself has placed this dilemma in front of these three men just to hatch himself a little entertainment, to watch how they go down in the face of avarice and suspicion.

It's Hank who insists that they report the downed plane and the money, Lou who wants to keep it. Jacob, who seems dizzily incapable of forethought, agrees with Lou. Why not take the money?

But Hank folds rather quickly, coming up with a hazy plan about sitting on the money until spring, when the snow melts and the plane will be found. Then they'll know if anyone's looking for the money, where it came from, if there's a reward. The three make a pact, and Hank--clearly the only available candidate for the brains of the outfit--takes custody of the loot.

It's inevitable that one lie will breed another and that the ties among the three men will be tested and torn, but what's great about A Simple Plan is how unpredictable each twist and turn feels.

The depths of this movie belong primarily to Billy Bob Thornton's performance as the slow, amiable, melancholy Jacob, a goof who starts off seeming like an extra from the old Andy Griffith Show--Don Knotts minus the hysteria. But Thornton reveals Jacob as a man who's been screwed over many times and refuses to become small or mean; a man who seems sad and simple, yet is complex, with the capacity for a direct, uncomplicated kind of happiness.

Paxton's Hank seems less shocked than shell-shocked through much of the movie, even when faced with the stunning venality of his sweet wife (Bridget Fonda). This stolid quality may be true to Hank's character, but at times it doesn't feel very satisfying.

Because this is crime in the snow in Minnesota, A Simple Plan has been compared to Fargo, but it's a far different film. There's less brooding malice in the cinematography and the snowscapes, and no one has a Minnesota accent. (They sound like they're in southern Indiana, which is actually fine. It may be inaccurate, but it's less distracting, and works to hold the condescension at bay.) A Simple Plan is frequently wise about small-town Midwestern life, and it's often very funny.

The movie works because it doesn't depend solely on the conundrum "What would you do if you found 40 million dollars?" but instead painfully, inexorably follows the question "Who do you turn out to be when you do the wrong thing?"

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