Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Simple Plan

The second movie in the "Fiasco" genre I watched, after Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, was A Simple Plan. Of all the fiasco movies I've watched, this one was my favorite, and the most impactful. I'm going to avoid spoilers, but inevitably in the process of talking about the movie I'm going to reveal some things about the tone that might hint at the plot a little and dampen the impact of parts of the story, so if you haven't seen it and want to avoid spoilers it still might be best to avoid reading this.

The thing about LS&2SB that made me feel largely unengaged was that I didn't care enough about how it was going to turn out to either root for or against anyone, or for or against any particular outcome. I wrote a fair amount about why that is in my previous post, but I think the biggest reason is the one I came up with last. In a conventional "good guys win" movie, you know how it's going to end, roughly; but you don't know how it'll get there, and therefore, you don't know what the effects will be, what the costs and consequences will be on the characters, that come from how they got there. The one thing you do know -- that the good guys win -- is only one of several important things you want to know. The other important things are, what does the victory mean to the characters, how does it affect them? In a fiasco movie, however, the one thing you do know -- that the characters will all end up screwed -- is really the only thing that matters. There's no analogous second question about which there may be suspense. The only thing you don't know is the precise path they take to get to their miserable ends, and which specific miserable end they'll have, but that really doesn't matter that much.

This does affect A Simple Plan somewhat, and this is enough to ensure that if I had never seen it I wouldn't feel like I missed out. However, A Simple Plan still struck me as a much better movie because it engaged me a lot more, and that's for one simple, even simplistic, reason: I could identify with the characters. As they progressed down the path to eventual ruin, I felt like the path was one anyone could have ended up on. I could have, or anyone I know could have, ended up in the same situation easily enough, if the dice had happened to fall the right way, and just a few easily-made mistakes got made.

Contrast that to LS&2SB where the characters, one and all, are in the messes they're in not just because of mistakes they make, but also because of the kind of people they are and the kind of life they've chosen. It's a life that feels alien to me, and perhaps I'm being condescending when I say it, but I feel like they're at least partially to blame for their situation: they put themselves into a world where that kind of thing happens to lots of people.

But the characters in A Simple Plan are fairly ordinary people dealing with fairly ordinary challenges who happen to run into something that is unusual, but could plausibly happen to almost anyone. They make some poor decisions, and they have a few notable cases of bad luck, terrible timing, and the like, but by and large, they find themselves drawn, step by step, into a ruin for which they can only blame themselves. Before long they're looking back saying, how did it come to this? How did I end up doing the things I've done, that I would not have thought myself capable of? That's not something that almost anyone in LS&2SB can get away with saying with a straight face.

For this reason I found the story and the characters far more compelling. I suspect that what's really happened here is, I don't particularly care for the fiasco-genre part of the story, which is why I haven't really enjoyed any of the other fiasco movies I've seen; but I have found something else to like about this movie, a different place to latch onto it. I don't mean to suggest that what I like about the movie is something the creators didn't intend, because I'm sure they absolutely meant me to feel what I felt. The movie is simply operating on several levels. It's a fiasco movie, but it's also using that to do things that not all fiasco movies do, and it's that other stuff that was working for me.

The movie's craftsmanship was also pretty amazingly well done. Most notably the casting was fantastic. Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton were just perfect, and did a great performance. I don't know how flexible Paxton is; I have seen him in a number of roles and never been wowed, but never felt like he did a bad job. (Though some of his delivery in Twister was pretty clumsy.) But there's nothing he does better than the regular schlub with whom you can sympathize. And Thornton is incredible. There wasn't really a lot of noticeable cinematography or other production stuff, but the production did precisely what it should have done, facilitated the story. In hindsight I'm impressed with what they had to go through to get the story to work and to deal with the winter setting, but at the time I didn't notice any of that.

For all that, I wouldn't've missed the movie much if I hadn't seen it. It was a solid movie, and it's impressive how well they strung the story together, but it's not a story I really needed to be told.

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