JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 


2. The plan in A Simple Plan

The men find money in the downed plane.

Hank agrees to the plan only if he can keep the money hidden till it’s safe to spend it.

Jacob Mitchell, Hank’s brother, kills a farmer on a snowmobile getting too near the spot.

Jacob’s horror at what he’s done.

Hank is dragging the farmer’s body away when the farmer comes to. Hank strangles him but....

....has to avert his eyes as he commits his first murder.

Lou Chambers, Jacob’s buddy, comes to Hank desperate for cash to pay off his debts.

Sarah nurses her newborn as she conspires to frame Lou for murder.

In Lou’s home, setting up the frame...

Jacob hesitates: “It ain't right.”

Hank ends up killing both Lou...

...and Lou’s wife.

Hank tries to console his brother who is in a state of remorse over the Chambers.

Jacob asks Hank, “Do you feel evil.”

The sheriff seems wise to Hank and tells him an FBI agent (really a criminal) is looking for the downed plane. A stuffed fox is framed between the two.

Sarah’s furious reaction when Hank wants to return the money strips middle class values bare of any pretense of decency.

The criminal posing as an FBI man says to Hank, “But you're not the cold blooded type, are you, Mr. Mitchell?“

With two murders at the plane site, Jacob insists his brother kill him and pin the murder on him, since the married man with a child seems to have so much to live for.

Hank with dead brother, sheriff, and criminal, living out the American Dream, which...

...goes up in flames.

The film ends with a view of the old family farm that Jacob wanted to use the money to restore.

 

A Simple Plan

The betrayals that propel A Simple Plan forward to its heartbreaking conclusion are at least as old as Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale. In Raimi’s shrewd updating, two brothers and a friend find in a downed kidnapper’s airplane in the New Hampshire woods a gym bag containing over four million dollars. The crucial difference between the old and new versions of the story lies in their respective morals. As Chaucer’s Pardoner states, the main point of his tale is “Radix malorum ex Cupiditas” (“The love of money is the root of all evil”). Greed, however, is not the prime mover in Raimi’s stark crime drama. Two of the conspirators, Jacob Mitchell and Lou Chambers, are motivated not by avarice but by desperation. Unemployed and on welfare, both of these guys just want to pay off their debts and earn a little respect. Only the hero, Hank Mitchell, with whom we’re supposed to identify, actually commits a murder. He’s also the only one whose motives are truly corrupt since he kills his neighbors just to advance his family’s middle class lifestyle.

As an introduction to the film’s three main characters, the first twenty minutes of A Simple Plan establishes basic tensions between middle and lower classes. In the film’s opening shots, we see Hank Mitchell, accountant for the local feed store, walking home through town after getting off work early to be with his wife. Townspeople and the local sheriff smile and wave to him against a backdrop of Christmas decorations still clinging to lampposts and stoplights. When he gets home, he races up the stairs to kneel in awe before his pregnant wife’s body. It’s the kind of sequence we’ve seen a thousand times since Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey first ran through town in It’s a Wonderful Life. On the surface, at least, Hank’s dependable and honest, a regular Joe. As his wife Sarah later tells him, when he’s convinced all his crimes will come to light,

You’ve got to remember how people see you. You’re just a normal guy, a nice sweet normal guy. No one would ever believe that you were capable of doing what you’ve done.

Not so with Hank’s brother, Jacob Mitchell, and Jacob’s low rent Rabelaisian buddy Lou Chambers. Before we even see them pull up in Jacob’s beatup Chevy pickup, their arrival is announced by music echoing loudly from their truck, the opening guitar riffs from Norman Greenbaum’s hippie Jesus anthem “Spirit in the Sky.” Even Hank and his wife can hear the song from their second-story bedroom. As Jacob rings his brother’s doorbell, Lou moons him from the truck, and Jacob flips him the bird in return. The next few scenes reinforce this initial impression of Jacob and Lou as stereotypical drunken rednecks. In the cemetery where Hank and Jacob are visiting their father’s grave, Lou starts pissing his name into the snow and Jacob runs to join him. Later, the two buddies guzzle beers and tell dirty jokes in the truck while driving down a backcountry road, with Hank sandwiched uncomfortably between them.

Part of what makes these contrasts so convincing is Raimi’s astute depiction of the mutual contempt between middle and lower classes. As a college educated man with a respectable job, Hank can’t help but look down on Jacob and Lou. When Jacob tells Hank the brother needs to shovel his snow, Hank jokes, “I’ll pay you a quarter to do it.” The dialogue suggests that Hank unconsciously views his brother as a simple-minded laborer, as a tool Hank can use at will. Lou’s distaste for Hank is equally evident. He calls Hank “Mr. Accountant,” takes offense at his refusal to share an early beer with him and Jacob, and sneers at his educated diction. Jacob joins in mocking his brother’s middle class pretensions, imitating Hank’s effeminate, mincing run and calling his shoes “pussy loafers.” Later, when the three members of the conspiracy start to turn against each other, their class antagonism becomes more brutally explicit. Jacob says of his brother to Lou:

We don’t have anything in common, me and him. You’re more like a brother to me than he is.

Jacob knows that underneath Hank’s ingratiating appeals to family ties and his bribe to help Jacob buy back the family farm, the more well to do brother doesn’t consider the working class on an equal. At one point Jacob says to Lou, “Look how he’s looking at us, like he’s fucking better,” and then he turns to Hank and says, “Like you own us or something.”

About a third of the way through the story, Hank takes possession of the four million dollars, so in effect he also secures blackmail power over the other two. At this point, Hank’s ownership of the two men becomes more literal. Their wary alliance collapses amid mutual threats to turn each other in. Hank challenges Lou:

Let’s just think about this. If you and I both go into Carl’s office tomorrow, and we both claim the other one killed Dwight Stephenson, who do you think he’s going to believe? You? The forty year old unemployed high school dropout who’s proud when people call him the town drunk? Or me? I’ve got a job. I don’t get drunk and scream obscenities at my wife in public. I don’t pass out in other people’s doorways. I wonder who he’s going to believe?

Hank knows that even though he’s the only murderer in the room, his class status gives him the advantage. He’s cynically banking on our culture’s automatic association of wealth with respectability and poverty with moral turpitude.

The American dream

Raimi depicts each character’s reason for wanting the money. In doing so, he exposes not only the desperation of the lower class’ struggle to survive but also the ruthlessness that underlies the middle class’s desire to protect and advance its precarious status and lifestyle. Of the three men, Lou’s needs are the most pressing and elemental. He comes to Hank’s house in the middle of the night to ask for his share of the stolen money. Dropping his tough guy act, he nearly collapses against Hank’s front door as he swallows his pride:

I need my share, Hank. I do. I’m broke. And I owe people money. I need some help here.

In the scene in which the Mitchell brothers later betray Lou, he holds a gun on Hank but shouts to Jacob,

You know I need that money. I need it tomorrow. They’re going to take my truck.

These are not the words of a greedy man dreaming of a summer home in the Berkshires. Lou is clinging to the most necessary of his everyday possessions. The most extravagant dream he expresses is that Jacob should use his share of the loot to buy “something classy—a Trans Am.” By society’s standards, Lou’s dreams are embarrassingly small.

Jacob’s dreams are even more painfully ordinary. All he wants is to live a normal life with a wife and a family, things even Lou has. Never having had money, a decent job, a college education, or even a girlfriend, Jacob sees romance and normalcy as commodities that can be acquired only if a person has enough money. In one of A Simple Plan’s most moving scenes, Jacob and Hank sit outside Lou’s home after Lou has been killed. The two brothers discuss Jacob’s dreams for an ordinary life. Having admitted that his only high school relationship was the result of a hundred dollar bet, Jacob says,

God, Hank, you know, I’ve never even kissed a girl before. If being rich will change that, I’m all for it... I just want to know what people do, you know?

Money itself holds no allure for him. All Jacob wants is a life that will allow him to be just like everyone else and give him the kind of respect everyone accords Hank. Hank can only nod and manage a tight smile. More socially integrated, he realizes how hopelessly far outside our culture’s margins Jacob’s life has been and always will be.

Of the three, only Hank is motivated by anything other than need. Already taking for granted the security and comfort that Lou and Jacob can only dream of, Hank’s role in the theft leads to the subsequent murders. His increasing ruthlessness comes from his desire to have his family’s life be the best that it can be, no matter what the cost. Throughout A Simple Plan, Raimi uses Hank’s moral deterioration to strip away any notions we have about supposed middle class respectability. When he, Jacob, and Lou first find the money, Hank’s the only one who wants to turn it in. He lectures the other two:

You have to work for the American Dream. You don’t steal it.

Hank has internalized the laws and behavior that society has established for a proper husband and father. Violating those boundaries only becomes thinkable for him once Lou brings up the motive of Hank’s acting for his family:

You got a beautiful wife at home. You’re about to have a baby. I know you ain’t pulling down that much at the feed mill.

Lou may be right, but all the images we see of the Mitchells’ lifestyle indicate that they are far from poor or desperate. Hank and Sarah’s house is immaculate, their furniture tasteful, and their clothes are stylish. They have wine with dinner. We never see them fretting over bills or about where their next meal is coming from. Every shot in the interior of their home is bathed in the soft yellow light of comfort and warmth. As Sarah herself first protests,

We don’t have to worry about money now. You have a good job.

Hank has internalized one of capitalist culture’s most insidious messages about the sanctity of home and family: Protect your own and to hell with everyone else. Once he agrees to keep the money, all Hank can focus on is how it will guarantee his family financial security and free him from the pressures of being the breadwinner. Unlike Lou or Jacob, neither Hank nor his family really needs anything. Underneath his aw-shucks demeanor and everyman charm, he’s a greedy, selfish bastard. Lou alone recognizes this aspect of Hank’s character. In the moment in the film after the Mitchell brothers have betrayed him and he holds Hank at gunpoint, Lou pleads with Jacob to take his side:

You see, he’s got a job. It’s you and me, buddy, we are the ones who needs it [the money]. He just wants it. Do you think he’s your friend? He doesn’t give a fuck about you!

The murders and betrayals that Hank commits aren’t motivated by financial need but in a twisted way by what he sees as his responsibility to his family. He smothers Dwight Stephenson to protect his brother and then rationalizes framing Lou for Dwight’s murder after Lou threatened to turn him. He says he’s doing this out of responsibility towards his wife and child. Then when Jacob assures him that Lou would never really turn him in, Hank replies,

I can’t take that chance. Not now with the baby.

Hank’s moral decline is also commented on throughout the film by framing and visual style. His true nature is slyly hinted at by visual metaphors linking him to the thieving fox that led them to discover the cash. Early on, when Hank first forces his way into the downed plane, we see his face through a heavy wire mesh, duplicating the earlier shot of the fox poking his snout through chicken wire to break into the henhouse. Later, when the sheriff stops in at the barbershop where Hank’s getting a haircut to ask him to come by and answer some questions from an FBI agent, we see a stuffed fox on the windowsill between the two men, an image of the hunted thief caught.

Like Hank, his wife Sarah Mitchell undergoes a radical transformation once she agrees to Hank’s plan for keeping the money. Raimi uses such character change to stress how our most treasured myths about family and home inspire the kind of ruthless violence we see in A Simple Plan. In the scene that introduces her, Sarah is naked except for an open white bathrobe. Her figure is bathed in soft backlight from a window in the bathroom, a shot emphasizing her protruding pregnant belly, making her the embodiment of Motherhood. Like the Capraesque scenes that first establish Hank’s character, everything here presents Sarah as innocent and angelic. She’s a Madonna, not a whore. But as she and Hank lie in bed the night after he brings home the money, she voices the same worry he has about not being able to trust Jacob and Lou. Her initial reluctance to keep the money has vanished

As the film progresses, Sarah becomes the true brains behind all Hank’s plans. In one of the film’s most telling scenes, even as she’s nursing her newborn daughter in the maternity ward, Sarah herself devises the scheme to audiotape Lou and frame him for Dwight’s murder. She holds her baby to her breast while her voice and stare become frozen. With icy calculation, she instructs Hank how to fuck over Lou. The implications of the moment are clear: Sarah’s found this new reserve of ruthlessness not in spite of her motherhood but because of it. No animal is as vicious as a mother protecting her young.


To topPrint versionJC 46 Jump Cut home