“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist,” writes Baudelaire. It is the greatest trick of modernity, beginning with the Enlightenment, as well. And, if the various modern social projects from capitalism to communism had anything in common, it was their motivation to convince all of us that we were not evil, despite so much evidence to the contrary. Though this ultimate goal has never been attained, there is no doubt that many of its legacies are quite impressive. Each innovation, while providing everything from warmth to sustenance, is at some level meant to guide us away from the edge of the abyss. But social mores—which are, unlike ethics, a product of their particular moment—often prove thin gruel when violating them seems to come cheap.
And this brings us to the world of Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), the protagonist of A Simple Plan. His world is pleasant enough, if not particularly interesting; he appears to be a pillar of his community, even while he only works in a seed mill. The town is small enough that everyone knows each other’s names and family histories. The town, in spite of having more than one village idiot, only has single police officer. It doesn’t seem like a likely place for money-laundering, theft or murder; all acts which Hank will commit before close of curtain. This is a strange track to follow, considering that, when the film begins, Hank is, in his own words, “a happy man,” even though he might not realize it. He is employed, even if his job does not look particularly gainful. He has a happy marriage, a child on the way and a house large enough to accommodate all of it.
And, in this particular town, being a white sheep is somewhat of an anomaly. The town’s average resident might not be as bone-headed as Hank’s brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) or Lou Chambers (Brent Briscoe), Jacob’s best friend, but very few of them appear to hold Hank’s enviable position in the community—that of a hardworking family man whose honesty people take for granted. But, even as everything in this community seems in place, there is always a hint of danger, even when the danger at first is only metaphorical. Director Sam Raimi indicates this in one of his opening shots—a fox curiously sniffing around the outer edges of a chicken-coop, looking for a way inside. But the danger does not remain metaphorical for long; on its way back to its lair, the fox darts back across a country road, the surprise of which drives the truck carrying Jacob, Lou and Hank off the road and draws them into the woods seeking reprisals.
Sometimes those who seek after the wrong things do not find though, and instead of getting their revenge, they stumble upon the wreckage of an airplane carrying nothing but a corpse and $4 million. What Hank originally sees as “a police matter” soon morphs into an everyman’s way out of his tepid existence. It takes less than five minutes for all of the men to find their way to the side of the law where they have never ventured too far. A simple plan—to hide the money and wait until the plane has been discovered before fleeing town—is all that they need. In Hank’s mind (and the mind of Sarah, his wife and co-conspirator), this is a one-time-only type event.
Unlike other contemporary studies of steady decline into the abyss such as Breaking Bad, A Simple Plan does not change its protagonist into a sociopath or crime lord. Even as he becomes a murderer (at one point forcing himself to look away as he smothers a witness to his theft) he never loses his sense that decency is something to be aspired to. Bill Paxton is not an actor known for his charisma, but his John Q. Public persona plays well with the requirements of the role. It is a serviceable performance, though not nearly as haunting as that of Billy Bob Thornton who, as his ne’er-do-well older brother, grows increasingly burdened by the weight of his sins, without any of the familial support which is his brother’s privilege. When Thornton’s Jacob says that he “feels evil” all can empathize with the feeling, even though his feelings do not mislead him.
And evil begets itself; the first murder gives Lou the leverage that he needs for blackmail, which eventually leads to Hank and Jacob killing him and his wife. But even as both men commit crimes which, as Sarah says, no sane person could ever believe they committed, they seem aware of their duties; this is particularly the case with Hank who can has a growing list of victims while also risking his life to prevent others from being victimized. (This latter point only becomes relevant after Hank learns where the money came from.)
In Sam Raimi’s repertoire, A Simple Plan seems like an anomaly because it is a fairly simple movie. The cinematography is adequate but not ambitious; the writing is powerful but not stylized; and the characters are real but not deep. Nor does it have any of the theatrical tropes of the Evil Dead trilogy that made Raimi one of the most notable horror directors from the 1980s. But, beneath its façade, A Simple Plan is also a horror movie. It is about the discovery of something horrible. Not an ancient book which turns co-eds into zombies or a portal to another world about to be overrun by the living dead; rather, it is about the discovery of a temptation that a life’s worth of moral instincts are incapable of resisting.
In one of his last lines in the movie, Jacob says “I wish somebody else had found that money.” Given all that has happened, no one is likely to disagree. But we are left to wonder if the money had fallen to someone else, would it have simply been a tragedy for that person instead? To hear A Simple Plan tell it, it could be anyone’s.