The Best Movie You Never Saw: A Simple Plan

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at A SIMPLE PLAN!

a simple plan bannerTHE STORY: In rural Minnesota, two brothers (Bill Paxton & Billy Bob Thornton) and their friend (Brent Briscoe) discover a crashed plane containing $4.4 million dollars. Their attempts to hide their discovery and keep the money for themselves quickly escalate into a series of lies, double-crosses, and murder, and that’s all before the folks the money was meant for come looking for it.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Brent Briscoe, Gary Cole and Bridget Fonda. Music by Danny Elfman. Written by Scott B. Smith. Directed by Sam Raimi.

THE HISTORY: In the late nineties, Sam Raimi was more of a cult director than the A-lister he would become in the wake of SPIDER-MAN. The EVIL DEAD trilogy had earned him a devoted following,  and DARKMAN was successful enough to spawn a series of direct-to-video sequels, while “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” made him a force to be reckoned with on the small screen, but he still wasn’t embraced by the mainstream the way he would be just a few years later.

a simple plan Bill Paxton

A SIMPLE PLAN was more of a director-for-hire job for Raimi than many of his other films had been, with him stepping in to direct this adaptation of the Scott B. Smith novel at the eleventh hour when original director John Boorman was forced to bow out. Nevertheless, Raimi brought much of his aesthetic to this change-of-pace thriller, and the film drew raves when it premiered at TIFF in the fall of 1998. While Billy Bob Thornton received an Oscar nomination, as did Smith for his adapted screenplay, the film didn’t fare well at the box office, only grossing $16.3 million, although it did set Raimi up to direct the big-budget Kevin Costner drama, FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME, before he dove back into genre with THE GIFT and…well…a little movie called SPIDER-MAN.

I did two films for Sam [this and The Gift]. And even though I only had a small role in the movie, I think it's maybe one of the best films I've been in from top to bottom, in terms of everything working—the story, the way it looked, the kind of impact it had. It wasn't a huge financial success, but I don't really think it was a flop, either, because it didn't really cost that much to make. I think it's a good film. – Gary ColeRandom Roles Interview

Brent Briscoe Bill Paxton billy bob Thornton a simple plan

WHY IT’S GREAT: Sam Raimi has close ties with the Coen Brothers. They were the assistant editors on THE EVIL DEAD and later wrote the screenplay for his film, CRIMEWAVE. In many ways, A SIMPLE PLAN is his Coen Brothers movie, albeit not derivative in any way. It’s intriguing to compare this to FARGO, with both movies set in Minnesota, although where the Coen’s had a lot of “Minnesota nice” baked into their world, there’s nothing nice at all about the world depicted in A SIMPLE PLAN.

Set in a desperate, rural town Bill Paxton is our defacto lead, one of the area’s few college graduates, who nonetheless ekes out a modest existence while his pregnant wife, played by Bridget Fonda, initially seems fine with their lot in life – until the chance of escape presents itself. And this is what A SIMPLE PLAN is all about – what one regular guy will do in order to escape his humdrum existence. While Paxton’s character doesn’t find the downed plane with the cash alone, he’s the only one who really has any idea what cash like this could mean. His brother, played by Billy Bob Thornton in one of his best roles, is socially and perhaps intellectually challenged. He’s happy enough with the status quo and doesn’t need anything to change – but he goes along with his brother. The late Brent Briscoe plays the third wheel in their time, a dumb loudmouth who wants to blow all of the cash now, not being able to conceive of the fact that throwing money around is a massive red flag, especially given that the missing cash, and it’s intent (as ransom) is already known to the cops.

a simple plan Bill Paxton

As such, it’s a morality tale, with Paxton sinking deeper and deeper into a moral swamp, egged on by his wife, who’s perhaps even more ruthless, and played by Bridget Fonda in one of her best roles. It’s a shame she seems to have quit acting (along with another Sam Raimi favorite, Alison Lohman) as she was one of the best actresses of her era. She’s amazing in this, but then again, everyone is. It’s a shame two of the four leads (Paxton and Briscoe) have passed away while another (Fonda) is retired. Only Thornton is still in the game.

While well-regarded, I’d wager it’s a film that’s probably been overlooked, even by some of Raimi’s fans, as it's so out of the ordinary for him. His directing is pitch-perfect, with him opting for pathos and tragedy, wihile if the Coen’s had done it, the movie might have been more darkly comic (I could just as easily see the original director, John Boorman, having made it operatic). Raimi does a subtle job, even though the film has some truly shocking moments, as well as a typically excellent score by his usual composer, the great Danny Elfman (who went on to marry Fonda).

I wanted them to identify with these characters as real people and then to put them in a slightly off-situation where they sin, and then watch as guilt and paranoia work on them. – Sam Raimi – Interview – Duane Dudek, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

BEST SCENE: Of all of the film’s strengths, one of the biggest was no doubt Billy Bob Thornton’s performance, and this scene, where he reveals to his brother just how little he knows about his life by telling him a heartbreaking story about the girl everyone assumed was his high school girlfriend, is devastating. I’d say A SIMPLE PLAN still ranks as Thornton’s best-ever performance, but then again, he’s been great in a lot.

SEE IT: A SIMPLE PLAN is streaming on Starz in the U.S, and on Amazon Prime in Canada. You can also buy it digitally for only 10 bucks (a steal!).

PARTING SHOT: While I have no doubt some of you reading this have seen A SIMPLE PLAN, I really hope those of you that haven’t check it out, as it’s the movie you can throw back in someone’s face whenever they dare to say Sam Raimi’s a one-trick pony. The fact is, when he decides to branch out, he can do so magnificently, and nowhere is that more apparent than with A SIMPLE PLAN.

a simple plan poster


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.