An American Tragedy
I’ve raved over Bill Paxton before, and I’m gonna do it again now. Paxton is one of American film’s finest and most underappreciated actors — a fact obscured by his own supremely subtle talent. A Simple Plan, an outstanding film and an instant classic, should finally bring him the recognition he deserves.
We meet Paxton’s Hank Mitchell in a voiceover as the film opens, as Hank tells us that it’s the simple things — a decent job, a wife he loves — that make a man happy. Indeed, they made him happy once, but the bitterness in his voice clues us in that things are not so simple for him now.
It’s New Year’s Eve in rural Wright Co., Wisconsin, a landscape as stark and cold as an Andrew Wyeth painting. On a remote nature preserve, Hank, his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble across a downed private plane that yields up a bag full of money — $4.4 million in hundred-dollar bills. Hank’s first thought is to call in the police, but Jacob and Lou wonder, Why don’t they keep it? They bring Hank around to the idea, so far around, in fact, that he comes up with a plan on the spot to hide the money till spring, when melting snows will reveal the plane — if no one claims the money then, they’ll divide it up and all leave town. It’s his way or he goes to the police, he warns Jacob and Lou, with a practicality and logic that foreshadows the terrifying but perfectly reasonable course he’ll take later.
Their simple plan immediately gets complicated, of course — none of them can leave the situation alone, picking at it like a scabbed-over wound till it starts to bleed again. Hank’s attempts at damage control only send circumstances spiraling even more dangerously out of control. And that’s when Paxton really starts to shine. Hank does some morally very questionable things in his effort to keep them all out of prison and very rich, and, more self-aware than the uncomplicated Jacob and Lou, his newly discovered aptitude for malevolent deeds troubles him deeply — he keeps pleading with his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), for reassurance that she would have done the same things he’s done.
In a story about how the love of money can push a good man to evil, Hank is always the guy next door, and never in that frightening, quiet, serial-killer way. Paxton never lets Hank grow beyond his nice, sweet ordinariness into something we can no longer identify with (after all the bad he’s done, Hank can still look upon his newborn daughter with a gentleness that defies words). That’s always been Paxton’s forté and the secret of his uniqueness. There’s been no actor like him before in movies and no one quite like him now. Tom Hanks has been crowned by many filmdom’s “ordinary Joe,” the embodiment of the average guy up on the screen. But Hanks’s persona seems to me to be one almost supranormal, a paragon of normalness — a Hollywood version of all-American gee-whizness. Paxton’s characters are always the flip sides of Hanks’s — they’re so genuinely average that it’s easy to forget that they’re invented, that it’s not just some guy up there on the screen playing himself. (Not that I dislike Hanks, by any means — in fact, put these two Joes together, as in Apollo 13, and they’re unstoppable.)
Lest you misunderstand me, A Simple Plan isn’t just Paxton’s movie. Billy Bob Thornton, who melts into a role (Can this possibly be Karl from Sling Blade and the only one worth watching in Armageddon?), is by turns infuriating and heartbreaking as Hank’s simple but never stupid brother. Bridget Fonda is perfectly paired here with Paxton; together with just a few sketchy strokes they paint a portrait of a believably — here’s that word again — ordinary marriage.
But A Simple Plan revolves around Paxton’s Hank, and it’s hard to imagine who else might have handled the role so sublimely. Director Sam Raimi, not previously known for restraint (see his Darkman and multiple Evil Dead flicks, all deliciously over the top), has created in A Simple Plan a bleak, haunting film of a decidedly American tragedy. Paxton keeps the film rooted in the everyday, turning its ruinous ending all the more tragic.