The next time you're hosting a party, try holding a 'dollar auction', in which you offer a twenty-dollar bill to the highest bidder. Participants can submit a bid for any amount they want, and the only rule that must be observed is that both the highest bidder and the second-highest bidder must pay what they bid. While the bids may start unbelievably low, such as ten cents, the bids quickly increase, and eventually all but two participants will remain. Not wanting to be stuck with having to pay the second-highest bid, the two remaining participants will continue to outbid each other, pushing the bid price above twenty dollars. After all, the participant with the highest bid will still end up getting twenty dollars back on their bid, while the second highest bidder will get nothing. The first time I saw the dollar auction demonstrated was in a Negotiation course, and the purpose of the exercise was to illustrate the psychological trap of competitive escalation. In competitive escalation, the more involved you are with a task, the more determined you become to see a return on your efforts, no matter how complicated or expensive it becomes. And this is precisely the situation that the characters of Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan" find themselves in.
It's the American Dream... in a gym bag.
Hank (Bill Paxton of "Titanic" and "Twister") has a simple life in a small town. While his job at the local grain mill is not spectacular, it certainly allows him to have a relatively comfortable existence, providing a decent living for both himself and his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda of "Jackie Brown"). However, Hank's simple life is thrown asunder one winter day. While hiking through the woods with his dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton of "Armageddon") and boorish friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), they stumble across a downed plane where they find a dead body and a gym bag containing $4.4 million.
At first, Hank is reluctant to keep the money, and would rather turn the money into the police. However, Jacob and Lou wind up convincing him that the $4.4 million is probably laundered drug money, and they would not be committing a crime by helping themselves to it. At first, splitting up the loot seems like a simple plan, but Hank soon becomes further embroiled in finding a way to keep the money without raising any suspicions. And so, this simple plan ends up having a life of its own, turning into a tangled monstrosity involving mistrust, betrayal, and murder.
In many ways, "A Simple Plan" is reminiscent to the Coen brothers' "Fargo". In addition to the similar snow-swept rural settings and black humor, both films revolve around illegal schemes that end up going awry from the limited mental abilities of their instigators. However, in this case, the protagonist is one of the hapless instigators, and the story focuses on his futile efforts to juggle the escalating consequences of his seemingly straightforward scheme. Paxton plays the role of the hapless hero very well, convincingly conveying his descent into avarice, paranoia, and duplicity. Thornton's character is very similar to the dim-witted Carl Childers of "Sling Blade", and as the story progresses, it is evident that Jacob is a much more complex character than at first glance. Finally Fonda also acquits herself well as the domineering wife who gradually pushes her husband further into a trap of his own making.
Director Sam Raimi is best known for his numerous cult films (including "Evil Dead", "Evil Dead 2", "Army of Darkness", "Darkman", and "Quick and the Dead") as well as his television handiwork in "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess". However, Raimi purists may find "A Simple Plan" almost unrecognizable in light of his earlier work. Instead of the usual wild camera work and over-the-top protagonists, this recent effort is clearly more restrained and conventional in its execution, relying more on the machinations of plot than clever visual techniques. While this clearly signifies some maturation in the director's work, avid Raimi aficionados who grew up on his earlier work will most certainly be disappointed.
Despite the lack of visual splendor, "A Simple Plan" still has a lot going for it. With the bumbling of its main characters, the associated black humor, and the ever-escalating series of crises that are endured, this thriller is certain to entertain.