Thursday, October 2, 2014

Neglected Gems # 64 & # 65: Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan (1999) and The Gift (2001)

Billy Bob Thornton in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan

The mournful opening shots of Sam Raimi’s devastating A Simple Plan display an almost other-worldly snowy expanse – a nature preserve where the story begins and ends. Along with Danny Elfman’s minor-key theme music and the voice-over by Bill Paxton’s Hank Mitchell – repeating his dad’s credo that what makes a man happy are “simple things, really: a wife he loves, a decent job, friends and neighbors who respect him” – these images are ominous: we understand immediately that we’re about to see Hank’s happiness come to an end. A Simple Plan is set in a Minnesota farming community, in a winter that seems to go on forever, like a season in hell. (The fine cinematography is by Alar Kivilo.) Hank is the orphan son of a failed farmer. He works as an accountant in a feed mill, while his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda), who’s about to give birth to their first child, has a job at the local library. His older brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) is an unsophisticated ne’er-do-well who spends his time hanging around with Lou Chambers (Brent Briscoe), a scrappy, sour alcoholic who can’t hold onto a job and whom Hank, a prime proponent of the Yankee work ethic, can’t abide. Lou’s marriage to a tough bird named Nancy (Becky Lou Baker) is one of those familiar embattled relationships that are bound by ties so deep you can’t see them. (They trade loud obscenities in public, but they’d never split up.) Nancy is really peripheral to the story, though, which for most of its duration has only four characters in it: Hank and Sarah, Jacob and Lou.

The movie is about what happens when a decent, law-abiding man – Hank – makes a truly terrible decision. He’s out driving with Jacob and Lou when a fox scampers out in front of Jacob’s truck and spooks him into a smash-up against a tree. Pissed, Jacob and Lou grab a shotgun and chase the fox into the preserve, despite Hank’s anxious reminders that they’re breaking the law by hunting there. Out in the wilds they come across a wrecked plane with a dead pilot and four and a half million in cash inside. Jacob and Lou are firmly in favor of splitting up the money, but Hank has to be persuaded. And when he is – when the temptation of the money proves to be too much for him – he comes up with the movie’s “simple plan” to insure that they won’t be caught. He’ll take the money home and hide it; they don’t get to touch any of it until the spring. Then, if no one has shown up in the interim looking for it, they’ll divide it up and then leave this small town, where everyone knows them and they could never get away with suddenly acquiring a legacy without arousing the curiosity of their neighbors. Hank’s scheme is intended to temper his brother and Lou’s impulsiveness and sloppiness with his own reasonableness. That’s part of the irony, since, once he gets sucked into the plot to steal the money, his own conduct is no longer worthy of setting the standard for the conduct of others.

Inevitably, things get worse – dramatically, wretchedly worse. When Hank proposes his idea to Sarah, he presents it initially as a theoretical problem, and she instinctively opposes his point of view. Then he plops the money down on the kitchen counter. She laughs in disbelief – the cash seems surreal to her – and continues to argue that they don’t need it. But by morning she’s changed her mind, and she evolves her own plan which will, she thinks, clinch the possibility that they can actually get away with the theft. She convinces Hank to return part of the money – which will look less suspicious when the plane is finally discovered – so he sets out with his brother for the preserve to put the amended scheme into effect. But while he’s planting the cash and Jacob is standing watch at the truck, a local farmer named Stephanson (Tom Carey) happens along on his tractor, and Jacob, losing his head, knocks him down, apparently killing him. Panicked, Hank tractors him out to the creek to throw him in, acting reflexively to protect his brother. But the farmer revives unexpectedly, so Hank smothers him before driving him into the drink. Jacob, who’s remained by the truck during this incident, is ready to turn himself in, until he finds out that it wasn’t actually he who killed Stephanson but his brother. Now it’s Jacob who must act out of a fraternal protective impulse. Ironically – this is a movie loaded with ironies – it’s their fraternal bond that prevents them from ending the nightmare before they get in any deeper. And they do get in deeper, much deeper.

Thornton, Bill Paxton, and Brent Briscoe in A Simple Plan
The movie, which was written by Scott B. Smith, is a contemporary noir, but it also belongs to another genre – greed movies, movies about the curse of money, how it drives ordinary human beings to awful and desperate acts and destroys relationships. Erich von Stroheim made the original and greatest of these movies, Greed, in 1924, adapting the American naturalist classic McTeague by Frank Norris: it ends with the two principal male figures killing each other in the desert while the gold coins they’ve been fighting over leak out of a hole in a saddle bag. At the end of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from 1948, the gold dust that turns the characters against each other (and causes the death of one of them) blows away in the wind. By the time A Simple Plan reaches its ironic finale, Dwight Stephanson’s murder has been followed by other deaths, and the lives of the survivors have changed forever. But then, we know their lives have altered irrevocably the morning after Hank brings the money home, when Sarah, now converted to his illicit get-rich-quick scheme, warns him that from now on they’ll have to be very, very careful.

What makes A Simple Plan even more upsetting than Greed or Sierra Madre is that it’s Hank who makes this dreadful error in judgment. Hank is a good man, the kind of man who instinctively cringes from behavior that’s normal for Lou (and for Jacob, under Lou’s influence): drinking while driving, putting away a few beers in the middle of the day, hunting on a preserve. The casting of Bill Paxton is crucial to the filmmakers’ conception. Paxton has a gift for playing ordinary Joes – men with a normal emotional range who find themselves stretched in extraordinary situations (like the character he played, memorably, in Walter Hill’s Trespass). Raimi wants the effect that Billy Wilder got with Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, whose touching ordinariness ensured, as Pauline Kael pointed out, that he’d have the complete empathy of the audience. But terrific as MacMurray was in that role, Paxton is a better actor, and his style is completely naturalistic. With Paxton, we believe absolutely in what actors call the given circumstances. And because Paxton and Raimi make us identify with Hank Mitchell, we’re horrified for him when he gets sucked into the vortex. When Hank smothers the farmer, Raimi holds his camera on Paxton’s face, which is more difficult for us to watch than his hand would be over his victim’s face. Hank can’t look at Stephanson, and we can see his stomach turns at his own actions. We can see that he’s just walked himself into hell.

Billy Bob Thornton is even better. He’s the movie’s wild card: you don’t expect the depths he suggests in Jacob, who turns out to be the true tragic figure. Jacob has a high-school-nerd quality, and he wears his hair unattractively long, as if it were still 1973; it makes him look like he still thinks of himself as a teen rebel (which he never was). His only friend is the town drunk; he loves his brother dearly, but he also resents him and isn’t close to him. Jacob’s life is aimless and empty; he’s never belonged to a community. Even in high school he was the object of ridicule and pranks. He longs for family – for his own, which isn’t forthcoming (his celibacy is a lifelong condition), and for a share in Hank and Sarah’s. When their baby is born, he brings them his own teddy bear, a remnant of his childhood, as a gift. And he dreams of buying back the farm his dead father couldn’t hold onto and thus resurrecting the family he’s lost.

Hank loves Jacob, too, but he doesn’t give him much credit. When they visit their parents’ graves, he’s amazed to find out that Jacob has been there without him and brought flowers. He’s almost irritated at the thought, because he thinks of himself as the smart, thoughtful, responsible brother – that’s the role he’s always played, while Jacob has traditionally taken the part of the fuck-up. Jacob is childlike (Raimi works in a touching allusion to the classic Lewis Milestone film of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men) and the ideas he comes up with are usually so terrible that it’s easy for Hank to dismiss his impulses and assume that he always knows more, and better, than his older brother does. And through Thornton’s performance, we get a sense of what it must be like for Jacob to know that his kid brother, whom he’s supposed to counsel and take care of, feels superior to him. But Jacob keeps surprising us, and surprising Hank. When he tells Hank that he wants to use the money to buy back the farm and Hank reminds him how hard it was for the old man to make a go of it, Jacob leaks the information that it was Hank’s college tuition that drained their parents’ money; that’s why their dad took out a second mortgage on the farm. We see that this possibility has never occurred to Hank, who took the money for granted and has never confronted the sacrifices his father made for him. Hank’s supposed to be the thoughtful, clever, insightful one, but here it turns out that Jacob is privy to facts that Hank should have known and didn’t. And even though Jacob’s desire to get back the lost farm flies directly in the face of his brother’s “simple plan,” we can hardly blame him for wanting what was supposed to be his by inheritance. Hank got to go to college; he wound up with a decent job and family. Jacob got nothing, and now it seems possible, to his mind at last, that he can obtain what his father (and, by implication, his brother) lost for him.

Bridget Fonda in A Simple Plan
Thornton’s performance deepens when Hank (at Sarah’s insistence) ask him to betray Lou, in a complicated plot twist that ends, predictably, in disaster. Lou – played with conviction and an utter lack of sentimentality by Briscoe – is an unlikable character. Sloshed much of the time, he’s come to live in that blurry limbo where people no longer feel the need to do anything they don’t want to do. He doesn’t work, he spends most of his time drinking and hanging out with Jacob, and he gambles. So of course he’s desperate for cash, which ill suits him for sticking to Hank’s plan calling for restraint and secrecy. He’s generally desperate, since his life is a mess. He broods; he’s one of those men who imagine other people are always looking down on them or waiting to insult them, and he holds onto offenses, real or imagined, forever. He doesn’t care much for Hank, who he thinks puts on airs and condescends to him (and Hank really doesn’t like him and really does look down on him); he obsesses over some vague comment Hank made two months earlier that doesn’t sound very important. At one point Hank and Jacob have to pull Lou out of a bar before he starts to brawl with another customer over nothing. When he shows up, smashed, in the middle of the night and demands that Hank turn over his share of the money, and Hank refuses, he tries to blackmail Hank with the information Jacob unwisely passed on about Stephanson’s death. When Hank reminds him that if Lou reveals what he knows, all three of them will end up going to jail, Lou’s tough-guy façade breaks down, and all we see is this broken-down, dead-ended loser. Yet Lou is Jacob’s best friend, and Jacob is fantastically loyal. So when Hank asks him to pick sides, the choice between his brother and Lou tears him apart. He begins to look sickened, and he turns bitter; in the late scenes, he seems almost robotic, the life gone from his face.

Raimi, Smith and Paxton aren’t afraid to expose the unpleasant side of Hank: his sense of himself as superior to the other two men, his willingness to seduce Jacob’s cooperation from him using his longing for family connection. It’s Sarah who urges him to take this step. The filmmakers err, I think, in making Sarah the mastermind behind all of the worst ideas Hank carries out, because it makes her seem like a conventional film noir femme fatale, and she’s not. She certainly makes everything much worse, but morally she’s no more to blame for the horror that ensues than Hank, who was also tempted by the money and who brought her into the story. What the movie is missing is a scene that shows us how Sarah shifts from her original opposition to keeping the money. The problem isn’t in Bridget Fonda’s performance: a fine, underrated actress, she’s good throughout the picture. It’s the character’s overnight reversal that strains credibility. I think that what Raimi and Smith are after with Sarah is an extension of what they accomplish with Hank: to show how the specter of the stolen money can alter even the most decent and commonplace of human beings. She tells her husband that keeping the money is stealing it, but then she allows herself to be persuaded by his argument that if it’s dope money, as they suspect, then it isn’t really stealing, because no innocent people are hurt by their actions. But when she finds a newspaper article in the library archives identifying it as ransom money, she insists that it’s better that they know where the cash came from, now claiming that, after all, they always knew they were stealing. She’s the one who insists, at the outset, that they’re fine without the money, but by the end of the picture she’s come around to despising the financial limitations of their ordinary lives; now she complains to Hank that they don’t have enough money to live decently. The truth is, they don’t have enough money to live as their fantasies led them to expect they might live with the cushion of all that stolen money.

The implicit fear at the heart of any film noir is that we could end up like the blighted people on the screen. Raimi takes this fear to its logical extension by removing all the usual baroque flourishes of noir, so that when we look at the Mitchells, we realize that we are these people, given a twist of fate. That’s what makes the violence so upsetting – too upsetting, perhaps, for audiences to embrace the movie when it came out. The night I saw it, the audience laughed at the most graphic scene, when the force of a shotgun blast blows one of the characters several feet up in the air. It seemed appalling to me that they could have confused this scene, which literally made me shake, with the violence in a movie like Fargo, which denies viewers any emotional stake in the characters, so that when terrible things happen to them, we can laugh without feeling sick. I couldn’t laugh at the treatment of the kidnaped wife in Fargo, whose funny Midwestern accent is used to dehumanize her so we don’t respond to either her terror or her death; I found it obscene. And I blame the empty cartoonishness of movies like Fargo, which came out two years earlier, for desensitizing audiences to movies like A Simple Plan, though on reflection I can understand the impulse of the people around me to protect themselves from the feelings Raimi aims to stir up with the violence in his movie. In A Simple Plan, the covetousness of men and women exactly like you and me is the real horror show. If we refuse to insulate ourselves from the experience of this movie – if we refuse to pretending that it’s merely Fargo – then we’re sure to recognize the Mitchells all too well and walk away feeling the shame implied in that acknowledgement. The night I saw A Simple Plan for the first time, I was due at a party afterwards, but I had to take a long walk before I could face another human being.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

Cate Blanchett in Sam Raimi's The Gift (2001)

Back in 2001, Sam Raimi said in an interview that if he couldn't get actress Cate Blanchett for his new movie, The Gift, then he didn't want to make it. After seeing the film, it's easy to see why he was so adamant: she's so good that it's hard to imagine the picture without her. Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, an attractive widow in a small Georgia town. She makes her living doing psychic readings for her neighbours as a way to support her three young boys. But her gift is also something of a curse. Annie is still reeling from the sudden death of her husband in a horrible accident – a misfortune that she saw coming. When she gets another psychic warning about a possibly murdered débutante, she helps the police find the body and the suspect, but she fears that her second sight might have put the wrong man in jail.

Cate Blanchett has proven to be one of the most translucent actresses we have on the screen – every tremulous emotion can be read on the pours of her skin. Blanchett doesn't display a recognizable style of acting, rather she morphs from part to part, much like Michelle Pfeiffer did earlier in her career. She can play a vast selection of roles – in movies as varying as Pushing Tin, I'm Not There, The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Aviator and Blue Jasmine – but her distinctly etched performances, one dramatically different from the other, always have a unity of soul. In The Gift, she plays Annie Wilson as if she were a grown-up version of Stephen King's Carrie, the troubled adolescent with telekinetic powers, only Annie is more self-assured. Where Carrie's powers emerge from repression and out of her control, Annie's come from an ability to see more than she cares to perceive. Blanchett's Annie is a vulnerable woman, but one who doesn't see vulnerability as a form of weakness. Despite being burdened by the power of having a second sight, Annie knows it's a strong part of what makes her feel whole.

Keanu Reeves in The Gift
The Gift might not reach the chilling depths that his previous thriller, A Simple Plan, did, but it's still an evocative and hypnotic Southern gothic melodrama. The screenplay by Billy Bob Thornton (who had a key role in A Simple Plan) and Tom Epperson takes a story that has a little of the sparseness of Horton Foote and cures it in the flamboyant ink of Stephen King. In A Simple Plan, Raimi worked with a terrific, but small ensemble of actors, where The Gift has him working with a larger group. And they spring a number of memorable moments. I don't know if Keanu Reeves has ever been better than he is here playing a redneck wife abuser who Annie suspects of the murder. (His chilling and fierce dominance put me in mind of Harvey Keitel's equally unnerving abuser in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.) The wily Katie Holmes is devilishly flirtatious as the débutante who becomes the murder victim, while Giovanni Ribisi adeptly mixes both tenderness and terror as a young mechanic who Annie tries to help out of a brutal family. Hilary Swank brings startlingly ambiguous shadings as Reeves's battered wife, and Michael Jeter does one of his wondrous bits of comic whimsy as the redneck's lawyer. Greg Kinnear meanwhile is pure perfection as a deeply unhappy suitor whom Annie is attracted to. His self-effacing handsomeness has never been employed for more ambiguous reasons than it is here. 

Sam Raimi may have started his film career making wildly kinetic and entertaining horror films like Evil Dead and Darkman (which had some of the dadaist pop that you would find in a Loony Tunes cartoon), but starting with A Simple Plan, he began combining cartoon expressionism with a stark dramatic realism – a variation he also later brought (and used to a different purpose) in the operatic Spiderman II (2004). Although The Gift is more textured than the comparatively minimal A Simple Plan, it is nowhere near as dramatically complex. (I'm no psychic but I figured out the ending before Cate Blanchett did.) The Gift however does do full justice to the dreamy undercurrents of sexual hysteria and repression that rest uncomfortably at the heart of most Gothic melodramas. For all its horror, too, the picture doesn't linger in the imagination later as Brian de Palma's 1976 adaptation of Carrie did, or carry the weight of total desolation that concludes A Simple Plan. But it casts for itself quite an eerie spell that holds you – at least, until the lights come up. 

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.   

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