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A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

3. A Simple Plan’s critique of the American Dream

Hank and Sarah seem to be happy with their simple jobs and....

....the respect of their small town neighbors and...

...a small frame house.

After Sarah originally objects to keeping the money, the couple make big plans about how they will spend it.

Jacob brings a present for the new baby but does not go in to see Sarah. She is disgusted by the gift, his beloved childhood teddy bear. When Jacob asks Hank to shoot him at the end, his last request is, “You just tell that little girl that bear was from me.

The bedroom becomes a site for quarrelling over whether to keep the money or turn it in to the police.

Hank finally murders his brother in cold blood.

In a drama that harks back to Macbeth, the crows are harbingers of death and...

...are introduced early in a horrifying scene when Hank breaks into the plane. Here in close up a crow eats out the eyes of the dead pilot

 

 

 

The selfish family

Raimi’s criticism of the U.S. family’s selfishness is underscored by the settings in which he has Sarah and Hank plot against Lou and Jacob or manufacture new rationales for not turning in the money or themselves. Traditional husband and wife occasions such as fixing dinner, talking in bed, changing a diaper, or decorating the nursery serve as the homey context for current family discussions about betrayals, framings, and coverups. Conspicuously, all these cozy scenes are shot from an unconventional distance, emphasizing the darkened dining room, empty chairs, or bare corridors in the foreground. These interiors become cold spaces that confine the characters as much as the engulfing snow outside.

This recurring composition checks automatic viewer identification with the couple. The visual style effectively establishes an uncomfortable distance that invites us to consider the Mitchells’ behavior with clinical detachment as a case study, like an experiment with too many rats and one piece of cheese. This technique also visually isolates Hank and Sarah inside the frame of an alcove or doorway. It confines them and suggests that the comfortable space they think they’re securing for themselves with this money is terribly small and lonely, surrounded by emptiness. It’s the condition they’ll be left in at the film’s end. Then there is just the two of them, trapped together for life with their gnawing discontent and the knowledge of their sins, bereft of family or friends.

The very presence of the stolen money in their home destroys any happiness the Mitchells ever had as they come to view their old life as inadequate and mean. The level of material comfort they were first satisfied with is no longer enough. When Hank decides to turn the money over to the local authorities because a supposed FBI agent has arrived in town looking for the plane, Sarah stops him at the bottom of the stairs and blocks his way out the front door. As manipulative and emasculating as anything with which Lady Macbeth tortures her guilt ridden husband, Sarah’s speech to Hank strips middle class values bare of any pretense of decency:

Is that what you think you want? Walking up to the feed store every morning for the next thirty years waiting for Tom Butler to retire or die so you can finally get a raise? And what about Amanda? Do you think she’s going to like growing up in somebody else’s hand-me-down clothes? Playing with some kid’s old toys because we can never afford to buy her anything new? And me? What about me? Spending the rest of my life eight hours a day with a fake smile plastered on my face, checking out books, and then coming home to cook dinner for you, the same meals over and over again, whatever the week’s coupons will allow? Only going out to restaurants for special occasions, birthdays or anniversaries, skipping the appetizers, coming home for desert. Do you think that’s going to make me happy?

Once she could imagine a future free of middle class financial stress, Sarah now knows that Hank’s salary will never permit them to live a life filed with the shallow comforts and distractions she craves. She’s come to look down on her own life as someone slightly higher up on the social ladder would. Throughout this entire scene, Sarah and Hank are shot in that soft, warm glow of their living room lights. We hear their infant daughter crying in the background, her needs for the moment ignored. Hank’s fixed stare and set jaw make it plain that he only has one choice.

The kind of brutal calculation which we see in Hank and Sarah is completely absent from the crimes that Jacob commits throughout A Simple Plan. Raimi’s depiction of this brother undercuts stereotypical assumptions about the moral worth of the lower class. Jacob’s ethical choices aren’t coldly thought out. Rather, they’re instinctive responses. He only attacks Dwight because he panics and doesn’t know what else to do, and he’s horrified when he thinks he’s accidentally killed Dwight. Later, as Hank is frantically staging a snowmobile wreck to cover up the murder, Jacob matter of factly explains what he’s decided:

We’re just gonna have to tell on ourselves.

Later, when they’re supposed to entrap Lou on tape, Jacob speaks with what looks at first like drunken petulance but is, instead, simple moral clarity. He suddenly looks over at Hank and says in that same reasonable tone:

I’m not gonna do it, Hank. It’s not fair. It isn’t right.

After Lou’s murder, when Jacob’s turned up drunk and Hank’s trying to soothe his brother to sleep with a childhood trick, Jacob chills Hank by asking him,

Do you feel evil?

On several other occasions—at their father’s grave, and just before framing Lou—Jacob looks his brother in the eye and asks him, with disgust and sorrow,

What’s the matter with you?

Hank’s elaborate justifications for betrayal and murder don’t make sense to Jacob. His basic decency is uncorrupted by education or ambition.

In fact, how we view Jacob’s character and actions serves as Raimi’s litmus test for the viewers and for whether or not they’re paying attention to his film. The same internalized middle class values that have conditioned Hank to see his brother as worthless and stupid have conditioned many viewers to see him that way, too. But he’s not. On a number of occasions, Jacob looks at his brother as though Hank’s the slow one because Hank is just grasping something that Jacob has understood all along. Jacob says, again and again, as if chiding Hank to pay attention and catch up:

Come on, Hank, you know that.

And in fact all the things Jacob has to explain to Hank would be clear enough if Hank weren’t blinded by his own conceit and denial. He buries the knowledge that their father took out a second mortgage on their farm just to send Hank to college, and that the father didn’t die accidentally but killed himself for the insurance money in order to help out the family. Rather than face these facts, Hank has dismissed his father as a “bad businessman.” In contrast, Jacob’s version of their dad’s life reveals that the father sacrificed everything, even his own life, to provide his family opportunities for advancement he never had. Jacob says of their father’s suicide,

He always wanted to get everything set up. He always wanted to have just enough to take care of things and relax. He never quite had that. I guarantee you if he had this [four million dollars], he would still be here, he never would have done that.

For Hank and Jacob’s father, the system failed. Hard work never paid off, he couldn’t get ahead, and the responsibility of supporting a family literally killed him. Hank refuses to see these things because that understanding would challenge his image of himself as a man who’s earned what he has by smarts and hard work. Instead, he would have to see himself as the beneficiary of other people’s suffering and sacrifice. But these facts are plain enough to Jacob. He is not invested in illusions of merit. The film makes it clear in its characterizations of the two brothers that worth isn’t a matter of intelligence but of truthfulness. By society’s standards, Jacob is a loser compared to his successful brother, but Raimi shows us he’s the better man.

As bitter and bleak as any crime novel of the Thirties or Forties, the final unbearable minutes of A Simple Plan are the stuff of Greek tragedy, and just as cathartic. Lured into the woods by a fake FBI agent who turns out to be the brother of the kidnapper who crashed the plane, Hank and Jacob’s actions echo their father’s sacrifice to save his family. The Mitchells reenact the futility of their father’s last desperate grasp for the American Dream. The fake agent guns down the sheriff, and Hank, who’s become a more cold blooded killer with experience, returns the favor.

Immediately Hank begins to hatch an elaborate cover story for him and Jacob, but Jacob can’t continue living with the knowledge of what he’s done. Hank tries one last time to convince his brother to keep wading across the river of blood they’re already close to drowning in:

You want to be happy? You want a wife and kids, me and you sitting around on the porch drinking late at night? Well, goddamn it, this is what it costs.

Hank’s remarks sum up the dictates of capitalist society: The only way for a man to make it in this world is to murder and lie. Consumed by horror and guilt, Jacob finally turns down the prize of a respectable family life, begging his brother to shoot him and “make it look like the bad guy did it.” He says to Hank:

I don’t want to sit around the rest of my life and think about this shit. I can’t do it... You can do this, and it’s going to be perfect for you.

Jacob understands now that his dream life would be nothing more than a lie and the allure it once held for him is gone. But he still sees Hank’s family as a reason for his brother to go on living. Like their father, Jacob sacrifices himself to protect his own brother’s prosperous lifestyle.

And, as was his father’s suicide, Jacob’s death is in vain. Learning that one out of every ten bills has had its serial number recorded by federal agents, Hank burns the money in his fireplace, the hearth and center of the home. The bills go up in smoke, Hank’s stern face framed by the fires that consume them. He and Sarah return to their jobs, performing the endless routines they longed to escape.

In A Simple Plan’s final shot, we see the rundown, empty farmhouse where Hank and Jacob grew up, its tattered curtains billowing like ghosts in the winter breeze. The film ends on an image of utter desolation and loss—the Home gutted and empty. For Jacob and Lou, the American dream couldn’t be earned by hard work, or even be stolen, since they lived too far outside our society’s proscribed parameters. And for Hank Mitchell, the dream can’t be held onto. It all drifts away in the end like the snow swirling down out of Raimi’s gray empty sky. Whether we work for it or kill for it, A Simple Plan shows us that striving for the American Dream ends up killing us all.


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