Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Simple Plan (1993)

I came to this for a few reasons, starting with being so impressed when I took another look at the Sam Raimi movie based on it (whose screenplay Scott Smith wrote). It also won some accolades from Stephen King, and then, going through Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, I realized how similar their premises were. It's not such an unusual premise in this day and age, I suppose. Even so, when I got to a scene where the principal here, Hank Mitchell, was flipping a coin in order to make one of his many heinous decisions the parallels cut pretty close to comfort. McCarthy's the better writer, of course, with more gravitas, and he's also better able to expand the story to bigger themes. Smith's novel gets pretty loopy pretty fast—I'm of the school (if such a school exists) that he did a better job of the second pass, with the screenplay. Still, as the King imprimatur would indicate, it operates successfully as some species of very nearly straight-up horror. Mitchell, as the first-person narrator, makes for an intriguing monster—rationalizing, self-pitying, with his feet on the ground. Jim Thompson territory, maybe even, particularly when he gets to the actual killing. In the end I had Mitchell pegged as all but remorseless serial killer, but Smith doesn't go there in his coda, which is just as well. That would be unbelievable, and there's a good case to be made anyway that Mitchell is just plunged into an extreme version of the psychological state of insensibility known in poker as "pot-committed." The baby Amanda was a nice touch—the baby who soaked up all the bad vibes, and becomes an unpleasant element in her own right, with a pathetic fate to match. Hank's brother Jacob, played by Billy Bob Thornton in the movie, works better in the book's version as an obese and forever-consuming sad sack (although Thornton creates a different, equally memorable character with one of his best performances). Smith also works the money aspect well. Four million dollars is a lot of money, and in the end I had nearly as hard a time as any character here letting go of it. Couldn't you try this? Couldn't you try that? I also happened to be convinced when they first found it that they should turn it in and walk away from it, and not just because I'd seen the movie twice. But once the rationalizing and especially the bad deeds were underway, I was pretty much right in there with them every step of the way. Interesting how effective it is that way.

In case it's not at the library.

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