F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 24, 2015)

24 09 2015

The epithet of “morality play” gets tossed around a lot when describing issues-based dramas – and usually in a negative connotation.  How dare a movie tell us what to believe, the undertone of their phrase rings out.  (Side note: these are often the same people who cry outrage when a film does not line up perfectly with their own worldview…)

But I believe the term can, and should, be applied positively to a movie if it offers provocative, challenging commentary on an ethical question.  Sam Raimi’s 1998 film “A Simple Plan,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” offers just such an experience.  Before he offered the be-all and end-all nugget of wisdom in “Spider-Man” – Uncle Ben’s “with great power comes great responsibility” – Raimi got down in the mud with human greed.  It should come as no surprise that we often fail to live up to that infamous aforementioned maxim.

“A Simple Plan” concerns morality in the aftermath of three buddies discovering a downed plane with $4 million inside.  The trio lives in rural Minnesota where the “rich” one of the bunch, Bill Paxton’s Hank Mitchell, works as a clerk at a feed mill.  Needless to say, they could all use some extra money and are willing to contemplate the dubious decision of keeping the cash.

As they debate the right course of action, their back-and-forth tussle somewhat resembles the expressive dialogue one might find in a play.  But never does the film take on the aura of superiority that one might associate with a preaching, instructive morality play.

So what differentiates it from the pack?  Credit director Sam Raimi, who smartly emphasizes the noir-like complexity in aspects of the story’s surprising turns.  Scripter Scott B. Smith also finds a simplicity in their internal tussles that resembles a parable, like the duffel bag of money is some kind of forbidden fruit that disrupts a moral universe.  These two sensibilities may sound clashing, but they harmonize masterfully in “A Simple Plan” – no doubt aided by the performances of Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as Jacob, Hank’s less educated sibling who harbors reserves of both resentment and nobility.

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