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Feature Presentation #5 A Simple Plan
“If we cover it up, it’s just gonna be worse…”
JUST THE BASIC FACTS
A Simple Plan (1998) | Mutual Film Company, Savoy Pictures, BBC Films, Paramount Pictures
Written by Scott B. Smith based on his novel, Directed by Sam Raim
Starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Becky Ann Baker, Gary Cole
Two-Sentence Version: A trio of friends who are down on their luck come across a mysterious plane filled with cash. When they decide to keep the money, their trust is tested to the limit.
Fun Facts: Scott B. Smith tried the story as a screenplay, switched it to a novel, then wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay. While a majority of the movie was set to film in Delano, Minnesota, only some footage was shot there. The lack of snow forced the movie to shoot in Wisconsin, as well. I won’t go down the road of Minnesota vs. Wisconsin rivalry because I never got that, so let’s move on. Speaking of the Oscars, Billy Bob Thornton was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. He had been nominated for acting in 1996’s Sling Blade and won for writing it the same year.
Why it’s rated R: Rated R for violence and language.
Does it earn its R rating? I mean… yeah? The violence is pretty intense and there’s more than one F-bomb. I do think more intense, graphic violence is on network TV procedural series nowadays. Still, the violence is unpleasant. If it came out today, minus some of the swearing, it’s possible it could be a PG-13 movie.
PUT IT IN CONTEXT:
Major Theological Themes: Good and evil, morality and ethics, honesty, sibling rivalry, swearing oaths, no person can serve God and money, confession and repentance
If Jesus told this story, it would be called: “The Parable of the Found Money.”
The book of the Bible where it best fits is: This whole movie plays out like a parable, one of the stories Jesus tells the crowds. These moral puzzles are meant to provoke one key question, “What would you do?” Throughout A Simple Plan, we see characters act as we think we would or wouldn’t, and with each choice, the tension mounts. Not all of Jesus’s parables had endings, however, whereas this movie has a definitive end. Still, the simplicity of its moral dilemma also exhibits the complexities of the choices - and plans - we make.
Most “Biblical” Line of Dialogue: (Pretend Jesus lifted up this scenario right after he taught that no one can have two masters, that one cannot serve God and money:)
Hank: “You work for the American dream, you don’t steal it.”
Lou: “Then this is even better.”
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Introduction: Is it possible to not spoil this movie?
A Simple Plan is a fun title for a movie. It’s one of those titles that basically says, “Hey, you know how stories go from simple to complicated in an instant because of character choices and relationships, no matter how simple they insist things are going to be? Well, we decided to be super ironic with the title because these characters’ plans are doomed. It would be like renaming Interstellar as “Catastrophic Science Ideas Meets the Humanities” or renaming the upcoming Barbie movie “Doll Celebration Satire” or Mad Max as “Road Warrior.” Oh, well, they did do that. Anyway.
One of the tricks to writing about movies is avoiding spoilers. Yes, this movie is 25 years old, so most of you should have had ample time to watch it by now, Dear Reader. On the other hand, this movie came out the fall of my freshman year of college, and that was just yesterday, so if you haven’t seen it yet, I totally get it. All that said, for this Feature Presentation I’m writing about overall themes with a broad brush instead of specific scenes whenever possible. There are lots of twists and turns, all of them filled to the brim with tension, and I think giving that tension away - whether through writing or video clips - just isn’t my job today. Okay, let’s talk about color, temptation, and brotherhood.
“$4 million dollars of lost money that no one is looking for?!”
The basic premise of the film is established in the first 10 minutes or so of the movie. Hank (Bill Paxton, who very sadly passed away in 2017) and his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda, in one of her final roles before retiring from public life) are expecting their first child. He works at the seed mill, she works at the library, and they’re just making their way through the daily grind. Hank’s older brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) has even less prospects, unable to find work or afford to buy the dormant family farm he so desperately wants. While on a trip to visit their parents’ grave marker, Hank and Jacob find themselves walking through the woods with Jacob’s friend, fellow down-on-his-luck townie Lou (Brent Briscoe) when they come across something that shouldn’t be there: a small plane, crashed yet intact. It’s filled with eye-pecking crows, pilot corpses, and money. Lots of money. $4 million in cash, which split three ways is… a weird number, I dunno, get a calculator.
After debating whether to keep the cash, they come up with a simple plan: Hank will hide the money at his house, they’ll wait a few months to make sure no one is looking for it, then they’ll divide it up and go their separate ways. Oh, and they are to tell no one. Just be patient and ride it out. Simple plan, right? Heh. Right. Hank, Jacob, and Lou all have their own challenges with patience, with keeping their mouths shut, with avoiding involving others, with picking sides, and most of all, they are challenged with trust.
I’m all for negotiation. We experience it all over. We negotiate how we spend our resources like time, energy, and money as we weigh our wants and our needs. We negotiate with the people in our lives on how we will build a policy at work, raise the kids at home, raise funds for a community event. If we’re lucky, we may even see negotiation at the government level! The challenge for Hank, Jacob, and Lou right away is the negotiation is forced. All three of them come from a tough starting point. Hank has to be pushed because he is afraid of what will happen if they’re caught. Lou is too pushy because he’s too desperate to pass up this windfall. Jacob is wishy-washy, going back and forth between his friend and his family because they’re all he’s got. Fear, desperation, isolation. These are terrible ingredients for a negotiation recipe.
Earlier, I wrote about Jesus telling parables - short stories meant to provoke thought and the question “What would you do?” While he doesn’t tell any parables in his famous Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew 5-7), he has a lot to say about how the characters in this parable-ish movie should operate. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus speaks out against taking an oath. Scholars much smarter than me have debated how to interpret this and there isn’t a simple reading. There are places in the Bible seemingly affirming swearing an oath. Some say it’s about taking oaths that go against God’s purposes. Others say it’s hyperbole to encourage people to prioritize their obedience to God.
The interpretation I go with is that Jesus is speaking about honesty in our relationships. I like how it’s put in the New Collegeville New Testament Commentary: “Jesus insists that relations among Christians be so transparent as to end the need for taking oaths at all.” (26) If you’re honest, you don’t need to swear an oath. None of these three men of A Simple Plan is completely honest with each other. As an audience, we stick the most closely with Hank’s point of view, so when he tells Sarah about the money - despite a simple plan not to tell anyone else - we see her joy and remember they’re pregnant and we crack a smile. But when we find out Lou told his wife Nancy (Becky Ann Baker), it’s portrayed as a betrayal of Hank! None of them are very clean.
Jesus’s final line in this brief passage sums it up: “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no;’ anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Lou has to talk Hank into the plan. Hank has to set terms and conditions on the plan. Jacob has to straddle the fence as best he can - and he’s the one who wonders later if he’s the only one who feels evil. At no point in a simple plan to keep $4 million is their oath a firm “Yes, yes” because it’s too murky with “No, no.” Trust deteriorates, and things get ugly quick. What role does negotiation play in your life? Is your “Yes” a firm “Yes”? Your “No” a true “No”? What does living a transparent life look like to you?
“Listen, I’m supposed to get the farm! What do I get?! I’m supposed to get the farm!”
The heart of A Simple Plan isn’t the money. It’s not Hank and Sarah’s family. It’s not even Danny Elfman’s moody, minor key, intentionally out-of-tune music score. It’s Hank and Jacob’s brotherhood. All their lives, each has thought he knew better than the other (and in some cases, they actually did). Now that a simple plan has brought a complex tension, things get worse. Hank is the younger brother, always looking out for Jacob because to Hank he seems a little slow on the uptake, never quite able to launch into adulthood, always scraping by without any practical plans to match aimless, fleeting ambition. Jacob is the older brother, always looking out for Hank because to Jacob he seems a little set in his ways, never quite able to relax and open up, always putting on airs without remembering the simple farm life he came from. On occasion, they come clean with each other throughout the movie, though they’re not always prepared to hear what the other has to say.
Sorry if this is making you think about one of the relationships in your life. Family and friendships can be rough. Just remember, this is exactly what a parable is supposed to do: make you ask, “What would I do?”
Well, sadly there just aren’t any pairs of brothers in the Bible that we can compare and contrast with Hank and Jacob. Oh, wait. There are too many pairs of brothers in the Bible! I’ll just pick three, how about that? Let’s talk about the disciples James and John, the fraternal twins Jacob and Esau, and the original brothers, Cain and Abel. None is a perfect analogy for Hank and Jacob, but there are echoes, for sure.
Fishermen James and John, brothers and disciples of Jesus, ask their teacher to give them the place of honor. Basically, tell us you’re the best! Around! Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down! (Mark 10:35-45) That’s not a request you make unless you’re pretty sure of what answer you’ll get. The other disciples are upset by this. Jesus essentially tells them all to relax. There are bigger things at work here than petty squabbles about who’s the best. Even in another telling of this moment in the Gospel of Matthew, when James and John bring their mother in to make the request (thousands of years before the invention of the helicopter, there was the helicopter parent), Jesus isn’t having it (Matthew 20:20-28).
Hank and Jacob don’t necessarily argue over who is the best. But they do have a lot to say about one another’s lives. Hank points out that Jacob has no real prospects. Jacob argues everything came easy for Hank. Sometimes sibling rivalry dies hard. The stakes are raised for this old hat bickering now. There’s more money than they’ve ever dreamed about. It makes bitter feelings that much more chiseled. It makes dismissive feelings that much more flippant. They love each other, but tempers flare.
The tale of fraternal twin brothers Jacob and Esau is too complex to truly dive deep here. You can read more and register for a free course at EnterTheBible.org or, as they used to say during Saturday morning cartoons and during after school specials, “For more information, visit your local library!” In short, Jacob and Esau were the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. Esau was born first, so he is the firstborn son and thus he automatically has his birthright to inherit their father’s estate and any blessing from his father would be a bigger, greater blessing for him. The brothers’ relationship was rocky, going back and forth throughout Genesis. Early in their story, Jacob tricked Esau into giving up his birthright for a bowl of soup. (Genesis 25:29-34)
Later, their mother, Rebekah, played favorites and helped Jacob cheat Esau out of his father’s blessing (Genesis 27). Look, if you ever think your family has issues, just read the middle of Genesis and you’ll feel better. Their relationship continues on many twists and turns but this notion of stolen birthright and blessing will continue to cloud their brotherhood.
Jacob - that’s Jacob in the movie, not Jacob in the Bible - calls his brother Hank to meet him at the family farm. Now that they’ll have the money, he wants to buy it and farm the land. Hank tells him why that’s a terrible idea, that he’ll end up losing it just like dad did when he had two mortgages and couldn’t make the payments. Jacob says he had two mortgages because all the money went to Hank’s college fund. Hank clearly never heard this before. He tries to defend himself but Jacob grows angry. He was supposed to get the farm. Hank got everything. He got nothing.
It’s a tough moment, but a tender one. I know I said I wasn’t planning to include video links for fear of spoilers, and I don’t want you to watch other clips if you haven’t seen the movie yet, but this is a well-acted moment and I’ll write about the color in it later, so here you go:
Then there’s Cain and Abel. In the creation stories of Genesis, Eve gives birth to two sons, first Cain who tilled the land and then Abel who raised sheep (Genesis 4:1-16). Each made their offering to God and, in yet another moment from scripture that has as many interpretations as there are people to write them, God favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s. In a fit of jealousy, Cain takes Abel out into a field and kills him. God asks, hey, where’s your brother? Cain asks in return, am I my brother’s keeper? Here’s a pro tip:
Never answer God’s question with another question.
God calls him out on it: “What have you done?! Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” Cain is marked on his forehead and sent away. In a matter of a few verses, we have the first siblings, the first sibling rivalry, and the first murder. It’s like a divine Smothers Brothers routine gone wrong (“God always liked you best!”). Cain and Abel are the definitive Bible brothers. Top answer on the Family Feud board.
And, I won’t tell you explicitly if I have reason to draw parallels between them and Hank and Jacob. I won’t say if one dies at the hand of another, though in a movie like this, we see bloodshed. I won’t say who is who, though Hank gets a nasty gash marking his forehead from a murder of crows when they first find the money. I won’t say whose blood is on the ground, though the push and pull between two brothers who clearly love and care for one another is just as tense as their simple plan to split complex money.
What keeps you healthy in your relationships, be they siblings or sibling-like? How do you show genuine love instead of rivalry? Who lifts one another up to tell them they’re the greatest instead of worrying about it for themselves? And ultimately, are you your brother’s keeper? (Yes. Just to be clear, yes.)
“What happened to your head?” “It’s okay. It’s just a scratch.” “It’s all bloody.”
I started designing this essay during the winter season of Minnesota. On one hand, it wasn’t a great idea, because that meant it was cold and snowy outside and it was cold and snowy inside. We had a long winter, too, so even when I tried to watch the movie again in April, boom, here comes the snow. Seeing all of the stark contrast between white snow and black or dark landscape in the movie and in the world around me helped me realize two important things:
Color as symbolism plays a role in this movie.
Hank doesn’t wear enough winter hats.
It’s cold, Hank. Put on a hat.
You don’t like that Lou accused you of “puttin’ on airs”? Fine.
Put on a hat.
At least Hank often wore a scarf when he went outdoors. Most times, the scarf was red and gray, a streak of color in the midst of a black-white palette. In one scene at the family farm, Hank wears his red and gray scarf while Jacob wears a jacket that nearly matches the design, covering his whole body. This movie doesn’t have a lot of color, so there’s something about this that intrigues me.
Red is an aposematic color in nature. Much of the palette of the forest, the marsh, the mountains is green, brown, and gray. Add in a splash of red or yellow and this is nature’s way of saying look out! Danger. It’s a signal from an animal to any would-be predator that I don’t taste good, I may be toxic, or I may even be poisonous to you, so just leave me alone. Wasps are a flying warning sign. Poison dart frogs are a well-named, beautiful warning sign. Even ladybugs are saying shoo fly, don’t bother me.
In the movies, red is often the color symbolizing passion, temptation, and high emotions. Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Anger in Inside Out. Jessica Rabbit’s sparkling dress in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. The delicious red apple in Snow White. The girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List. The red front door of the “perfect” home in American Beauty. The lightsabers wielded by every Sith Lord in the Star Wars movies. In these and so many examples, when red is introduced on screen, it’s about heightening the tension, bringing attention to the emotion of the scene.
In A Simple Plan, red does both what it usually does in the movies while emulating what it does in nature. It symbolizes high emotions, tension, temptation, while also serving as a warning sign. Hank gets cut on his forehead by one of the crows. Still brings the money out of the plane, anyway. Hank wears a streak of red in his scarf because he’s in a little danger, but not as much danger as Jacob ultimately will be. Dwight has a red scarf and a strand of red blood trailing from his nose during a tragic altercation. And of course, on the fateful night in Lou and Nancy’s house, the glow of the red light of that little tape recorder.
Over and over, Hank is given warning signs to stop (oh, stop signs are red!). He keeps going. Even when confronted with actual, factual red blood, he keeps going. Part of experiencing any story, be it a book or movie or a parable in scripture, is putting yourself in the shoes of the characters and asking yourself what would you do? Would you stop? Would you continue? …Would you be smarter? There’s a reason most of Jesus’s parables seem simple on the surface but end up more complex: nothing in life is black and white. There’s lots of gray. And red helps wake us up to that fact.
If you do watch the movie clip above, you’ll see the red at play in the costuming. In a black and white landscape, Hank wears mostly tans with a streak of red. Jacob wears the opposite, all red with a streak of tan. And just in case it feels like I’m making all this color stuff up, here’s what production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein had to say: “We created a muted black-and-white color scheme to suggest a morality tale, the choices given between right and wrong.” So there ya go! Look at me, puttin’ on airs!
Thank You, Dear Reader!
Thank you for reading and sharing this Feature Presentation of A Simple Plan for R-Rated Movie Club. This movie has a special place in my memory banks and it was fun to write about. There’s more to say about A Simple Plan and I’ll add that in the Bonus Content soon for paid subscribers. But I won’t say it all, because as I wrote right at the top, the tension is just too good to spoil if you haven’t seen this movie. Don’t let another 25 years pass you by; check it out today and send me a note and let me know what you think of it. Paid subscribers can leave comments. For everyone else, I hope you get the farm! You’re supposed to get the farm!