Thursday, February 28, 2019

HEREDITARY 2018

"When you get older there isn't a lot left to be frightened of."
Mrs. Ada Quonsett  Airport (1970)

I was an easy scare as a kid. Afraid of the dark as well as my own shadow, I posed little challenge to older sisters who loved to leap out at me from closets and around corners; their shouts of “Boo!” eliciting a shriek of terror or tearful outburst (often both), followed by the usual threat-yelled-in-retreat, “I’m gonna tell mamma!”
Paradoxically, when not being terrorized by siblings, I did a pretty good job of terrorizing myself. I'm not sure why, but being a dyed-in-the-wool scaredy-cat proved no deterrent to raiding my sister's horror comic book collection (resulting in nightmare-filled bouts of sleeping with the bedcovers pulled all the way over my head), or watching scary anthology TV shows like Thriller or The Outer Limits. Programs that taught me no good can come of exploring the source of a mysterious noise and that fear comes with its own soundtrack. Just hearing the first few notes of Gounod's Funeral March of the Marionette (aka, the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents) was enough to make my skin go all gooseflesh. Similarly, John Williams’ nerve-jangling Suspense Theater theme, and that hair-raising whistling intro to Journey to the Unknown.
Toni Collette as Annie Graham
Gabriel Byrne as Steve Graham

Naturally, this masochistic desire to have the bejesus scared out of me extended to movies, too, but by the time big-screen psychological thrillers replaced the atomic monsters and vampires of Saturday afternoon TV,  I'd developed a better understanding of what I was after: the emotional jolt of the safe, vicarious scare. The payoff being that my naturally jittery nature meant that I got more bang for my buck.

I came to enjoy the sensation of sitting in the dark and surrendering myself to whatever reality these films presented; the deeper I immersed myself, the more thrilling the ride. But with the waning of the 1960s, the make-believe horrors of movies like Wait Until Dark (“What did they want with her? What did they want with her?” screamed the film's poster ad copy to my abject terror) and Rosemary’s Baby (“What have you done to its eyes?”) couldn't keep pace with the real-life terrors served up every night on the TV news. Fiction proved no match for the horrific reality of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; the unsolved mystery of the Zodiac Killer; or the nightmare of the Manson Family. When feeling frightened turned became a way of life instead of an escapist outlet, I knew it was time to give horror movies a rest.
Alex Wolff as Peter Graham
Then came the '70s, and with it, a whole slew of new-fangled sources of anxiety: Watergate, the Vietnam War, inflation. All leading me to reflect on the inadequacy of Roosevelt's oft paraphrased "There's nothing to fear, but fear itself." No, fear itself is plenty to be afraid of. With civilization edging ever closer to resembling those disaster films that were so popular at the time, I once again found myself seeking the sanctuary of scary movies. Happily, the '70s presented no shortage of films offering ample opportunities for primal scream venting: The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976),  Burnt Offerings (1976), and The Sentinel (1977).
Milly Shapiro as Charlie Graham
While I don’t tend to think of myself as a horror movie fan, I obviously consumed enough of them to start to take notice of the cliches, the repetition, and the recycling of themes. Instead of offering up the unanticipated and disturbing, horror movies began to pander to their audiences by following boxoffice-driven guidelines geared to giving the horror fan everything they expected.
The more market-friendly horror movies became, the more they needed to resemble product. Goodbye, to the unexpected, hello to by-the-numbers horror plotting and slasher villains armed with quotable quips and taglines.
The Graham Home
As haunting a presence in Hereditary as The Overlook Hotel in The Shining

Which is a shame, because now that I'm no longer the easily-scared kid I used to be, finding a horror movie that gets me to believe in the unbelievable is hard enough; finding one that's actually frightening is becoming a near-impossibility. Gore, jump-edits, loud noises, and a heavy metal song played over the closing credits does not a horror film make (which should come as news to Elie Roth and Rob Zombie). For a film to really scare me, it at least has to come from a place emotionally real. Hopefully while tapping into some elemental, suppressed anxiety rooted in human vulnerability and the fear of mortality.
Ann Dowd as Joan
Two recent films effectively and memorably accomplished such a feat. The first was in 2017 when Get Out, the impressive feature film debut of director/screenwriter Jordan Peele, hit me where I lived by using the daily microaggressions of soft-racism as the core of its horror premise. The second time was in 2018 when director Ari Aster, another emerging filmmaking talent, made his directing / screenwriting debut with Hereditary. While Get Out was unsettling in a thoroughly unique and personal way (the Black experience of racism as terrorism has always been ripe fodder for the horror genre), Hereditary bridged the above-stated "near-impossibility" gap by reacquainting me with the almost-forgotten, old-fashioned, pleasurable unpleasantness of simply being scared shitless by a motion picture. 
The Dollhouse Effect
Hereditary manipulates the viewer's sense of perception. Many scenes begin with our being 

uncertain as to whether we're witnessing real-life, or merely looking at one of Annie's miniatures. 

I came to Hereditary not knowing anything about the story, all I knew is that it was a movie starring Toni Collette, an actress (like laura Dern) I can watch in anything. I’d just finished binge-watching Collette's limited BBC One series Wanderlust on Netflix, and her extraordinary performance in that program left me clamoring for more. Always intrigued when an actor of her caliber appears in a horror movie, I purposely avoided reading anything about Hereditary beforehand, preferring to dive in blindly with eyes wide open, curiosity piqued, and with a great deal of enthusiasm.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact, I’m not even sure it's possible to be disappointed by Hereditary, for it's a film that has as its primary, defining characteristic, a dogged refusal to deliver anything remotely resembling the expected.
Portrait in Black

The death of a family matriarch is the catalyst event sparking an interlinked eruption of remorse, reflection, and revelation that ultimately sends an already loosely-tethered family spiraling horrifically out of control. Annie (Toni Collette), whose mother it was died in hospice after a long, grasping illness, is an artist whose method of coping with her traumatic childhood is to recreate the most painful events in breathtakingly disturbing miniature dioramas. And with a history involving a mother who suffered from dissociative identity disorder; a clinically depressed father who starved himself to death; and an older brother with committed suicide when she was just a teenager, Annie is not exactly at a loss for traumas to draw upon for her work.
Small Worlds
Understandably, Annie's family legacy of mental illness hasn't left her unscathed. In fact, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is the psychiatrist who saw her through a nervous breakdown. No longer his patient and largely managing to handle her issues with her late mother, a dark cloud hangs over the family due to a terrifying sleepwalking incident two years prior, in which Annie doused herself and her two sleeping children in paint thinner, awakening only as she heard herself striking a match. As a result, Annie's relationship with her now 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff) has grown strained and contentious, while her 13-year-old developmentally disabled daughter Charlie—who shared an unnaturally close relationship to her deceased grandmother—also channels her emotional dissociation into creating art. In her case, the creation of creepy, pagan-like figurines.
Milly Shapiro
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Afflicted with a lethal allergy to nuts, Charlie's sweet tooth and love of chocolate
turns every member of the family into around-the-clock sentinels 

Hereditary presents us with a dysfunctional family caught in the aftermath of a tragedy. As each is faced with the difficult task of processing loss, a series of disturbing, seemingly random events threaten what appears to be the hard-won calm of the household. Charlie's bereavement over the loss of her beloved grandmother manifests in the peculiar concern that there is no one left to take care of her. Steve takes to drinking as he grows stressed and overburned with always having to be the family's steadying force. Peter, juggling complicated feelings of maternal mistrust, blame, and resentfulness, numbs himself with drugs. And Annie, anxious about her own sanity while plagued with guilt over what role, if any, her genes and history have played in the fates of her children. Sensitive to the stress all of this has already placed on her marriage, she isolates herself--both physically and emotionally--while suppressing resentment over feeling she has no one to whom she can unburden herself.
Intimate Strangers
What I like most about Hereditary is that it is essentially a dark family drama cloaked in a horror film. Using the constricted, hemmed-in spaces of dollhouses as a visual motif, the film presents us with a family coping with unbearable degrees of trauma, yet they persist in shutting themselves off from one another. And not because they want to; they simply are not equipped with the tools to do otherwise. Barely speaking, struggling to communicate when they do, each remains in their separate, insular spaces, victims of their own severely-flawed coping mechanisms. It's a rarity for a horror film to put human conflict and emotional so front and center, but the brilliance of Hereditary is that once the narrative dives off into almost grotesque levels of horror, our hard-earned investment in these characters makes everything that happens all the more terrifying.
Contents Under Pressure
Like the sinister sculpture perched near the stairwell of the Graham house--another of Annie’s grim works of art, it’s a depiction of three deteriorating houses sinking, one atop the other, deep into the bowels of the earth--Hereditary presents us with a family enveloped in personality pathology sinking under the weight of the kind of crisis and catastrophe that's worthy of Greek Tragedy. As horrific events multiply and natural threats take on a preternatural cast, the film's pervading atmosphere of dread makes even the most startling, mind-bending developments feel somehow inevitable.
Gabriel Byrne, Toni Collette, and Alex Wolff
Don't Be Afraid


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
When film critic Pauline Kael titled her 1965 collection of reviews I Lost it at The Movies, she was (wittily) referencing the subtle loss of innocence that happens each time one watches a film. It's a slow maturing process that begins with being so unfamiliar with the vocabulary of film, everything elicits a strong response because it is all so fresh and new. As we grow more accustomed to the tropes of narrative and film's visual language, our experience of moviegoing becomes more enriched, but often at the cost of our ever really being able to recapture that sense of awe and astoundment born of our movie innocence. I readily admit that each new film I see brings with it the hope of reclaiming a trace of that lost innocence. Even if it's only for the length of one scene.
Hereditary brought a lot of those feelings back for me. Everything about the film seemed to catch me off guard. So much so that watching it became a little unnerving for me. It brought back that long-forgotten sense of feeling on edge long after a film had ended, my mind carrying around a kind of vague apprehension that produced an over-awareness of noises and a wariness of shadows.
Milly Shapiro and Toni Collette
"You never even cried as a baby- you know that? Not even when you were born."

A movie like Hereditary makes suspension of disbelief terribly easy, for in addition to it being skilled at keeping the viewer off-balance, it's a story told on its own terms, in its own unique voice, and benefits from a distinct, fully-realized world view. And in a horror film landscape increasingly dominated by the boxoffice-friendly predictability of franchises, a movie as audaciously bizarre and off-the-rails as Hereditary feels like a revitalization of the genre. 
The visual motif of low ceilings, narrow corridors, and confined spaces reinforce themes of emotional confinement and the notion that the Grahams (by virtue of heredity) are manipulated like dolls in a dollhouse by fate.

With each frame crammed to overflowing with information, clues, and foreshadowing, Hereditary is a film that practically demands a second viewing. If only to discover all the pieces of the puzzle that had been laid out, hidden in plain sight, from the first go-round.
Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne


PERFORMANCES
It's an accepted fact that horror films, like comedies, rarely get any respect come awards season. For every Sissy Spacek Best Actress nomination for Carrie (1976) or Ellen Burstyn for The Exorcist (1973), there are far too many Mia Farrow (Rosemary's Baby - 1968) - Deborah Kerr (The Innocents - 1961) snubs.
Toni Collette, all exposed nerve endings and bottled-up tensions, gives the performance of her career in Hereditary. She's so inarguably brilliant, her being passed over for an Oscar nomination feels more like a voter response to what can charitably be called a "difficult" film, than an oversight regarding one of the most compelling screen performances of the year.
Hereditary boasts superb and sensitive performances from its entire cast, but Toni Collette pushes waaaay beyond the usual boundaries, inhabiting a complicated, dimensional characterization. Equally impressive, to a heartbreaking degree, is Alex Wolff as the son. Not since Timothy Hutton's agonized (and Oscar-winning, I'd like to point out) performance in Ordinary People (1980) have I seen such a movingly recognizable depiction of adolescent grief. There's an unforgettable moment in Hereditary where Wolff, at a point in the story when family relationships are at a peak-deterioration point, is sitting silently in his car trying to muster up the courage to simply enter the house. It's a heart-wrenching example of the way Ari Aster manages to somehow make the small moments pay off as powerfully as the large-scale.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Singular-vision films like Hereditary and Get Out--both amplifications of the day-to-day terrors of life contemporary--do a great job of injecting some much-needed vitality and blood (literally) into a genre grown anemic over the years of tapping into the same worn-out vein of horror tradition. It took Aster five years to get Hereditary to the screen, directing from his own screenplay, and, from all accounts, finalizing every detail of the production before even a foot of film was shot. The end result is one of the most effectively scary horror films I've ever seen. An uncompromising work of individuality that still manages to pluck the nerves of universal anxieties. 
Annie's art installation dioramas were created by Steve Newburn, Hereditary's stunning production design by Grace Yun. Everything from Colin Stetson's shivery musical score to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski's eerily burnished images--which, when combined with Aster's sculptural blocking and emphatic use of stillness, turns the characters into mannequins--work in concert to formulate Hereditary's blue-hued world of haunted interiors.
The members of the Graham family move about from one isolated space to another. Even when they leave the confines of their homes, they merely find new places to be alone.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
 For me, the mark of a truly effective horror film, a quality evident in favorites like Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, or Don’t Look Now, has always been its ability to make me feel something for the characters. To get me to relate to and/or empathize with their circumstances to the degree that I care what happens and I’m engaged in whatever conflicts—emotional or psychological—arise.
In the equally-bereaved Joan, Annie finds someone outside of the home to whom she can confide.
Or has she? 

Horror films are hollow films if they don't feature characters with whom you can identify or situations whose outcomes you can become invested in. Hereditary goes to places that even fans of the genre find disturbing, but the darkness feels at one with the world Aster has created.
I don't know what kind of mind could come up with a move like Hereditary, let alone the genius capable of pulling it off so tremendously, but my hat is off to Ari Aster for taking so many chances and in the process reminding me what a thrill it is to be scared at the movies again. 
Unsafe Cinema
Nothing's more terrifying than a horror film that takes death, loss, and grief seriously


BONUS MATERIAL
Hereditary father and son Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff played father and son in the HBO series In Treatment from 2008 to 2010.
Psychologist Paul Weston and his son Max

Modern Family / Ordinary People 
The original cut of Hereditary ran 60-minutes longer than the theatrical release.
The original shooting script is available to read HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, February 11, 2019

A SIMPLE PLAN 1998

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; 
he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” 
                                                          Mary Wollstonecraft -1790

The plot of A Simple Plan initiates with the simplest of premises and most relatable of fantasies: found wealth. Three men hunting in the snowy woods of Minnesota happen upon a downed private plane in whose wreckage is discovered a dead pilot and a bag containing $4.4 million in cash. Reasoning that no one is likely to lose that kind of money without someone eventually coming to look for it, Hank (Bill Paxton), the most level-headed and intelligent of the trio, suggests they alert the authorities and hope for a reward. The two remaining discoverers--Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), Hank’s slow-witted older brother, and Lou Brent Briscoe), Jacob’s equally slow-on-the-uptake best friend--motivated by chronic unemployment and an inability to fully grasp all that’s at stake, argue that such a sizable cash sum MUST mean the money is drug-related and therefore less likely to be reported as lost or missing. So they all vote and instead decide to keep the money, splitting it three ways. 
Bad Omen
A fox attacking a henhouse sets into motion events that appear at first glance to be good fortune, but the film's recurring visual motif of crows signals something entirely different

Hank, outnumbered, already an accomplice, and swayed by circumstances of his own—his job is dead-end and his expectant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) is due any day—agrees not to report the money on the proviso it remains in his possession and they do nothing until enough time has passed to assure no one is looking for it.
Sounds simple enough. 
The bad luck crow motif materializes in Hank and Sarah's home

But this is a contemporary morality tale. If good fortune is responsible for awarding this trio“The American Dream in a goddamn gym bag,” then their tragic flaw proves to be their inability to realize what a bad omen it is to have such a stroke of good luck come at the expense of someone’s life (the anonymous pilot of the downed plane). Once the deal to keep the money has been struck, it isn't long before the group (which has now come to include Sarah, exhibiting heretofore-untapped reservoirs of resourcefulness and guile) is beset by a veritable Pandora’s Box of setbacks born of bad judgment, greed, mistrust, and betrayal.
Bill Paxton as Hank Mitchell
Bridget Fonda as Sarah Mitchell
Billy Bob Thornton as Jacob Mitchell
Brent Briscoe as Lou Chambers 

Combine the intricate plotting of Alfred Hitchcock with the psychological complexity of Claude Chabrol, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how deftly A Simple Plan mines both the suspense and moral ambiguity in this tale about a group of otherwise decent people entering into a hastily-conceived plot to stealth away a fortune in ill-gotten gains. But as much as unforeseen narrative twists make for a story full of roller-coaster thrill ride of obstacles, and grievous, sometimes fatal, errors in judgment; it’s the complicated, contradictory impulses of the various characters—their individual personalities, motivations, and interrelationships—that give the film its most compelling jolts of knots-in-the-stomach intensity.
Merging elements of the crime thriller, the heist film, and the murder mystery, A Simple Plan’s unique perspective distinguishes itself in never feeling as though the machinations of plot and genre are the forces moving the characters along. Everything that happens—even those events furthest beyond the scope of the expected, feel like the organic, inevitable consequence of the combustible, putting-out-fire-with-gasoline interactions of dissimilar individuals forced by circumstance into an unlikely, unlucky alliance.
Three on a Match

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I can't say I'm all that familiar with the work of Sam Raimi. Fans of the director will cite his series of Evil Dead cult films, but of the director’s to-date 15 feature film releases, I’ve seen only The Gift (2000) and Spiderman (2002), neither making much of an impression on me. So A Simple Plan,  to my way of thinking, a practically perfect crime suspense thriller, exists in a pristine little bubble. I can enjoy it as a fee-standing work of distinction, without having to attribute any of its merits to director trademarks or signs of a talent maturing.
Happy New Year
I don't recall being interested in seeing A Simple Plan during its theatrical run, but on the strength of all the buzz surrounding Billy Bob Thornton's Oscar nomination later that year (one of two received by the film, the only one in the acting categories) I checked it out when it became available on DVD. If curiosity about Thornton's impressive physical transformation is what initially drew me to A Simple Plan, it ultimately became the least significant aspect of the film.
Almost instantly I responded to the dramatic potential of the setting, characters, and situation, engrossed by the unexpected intimacy achieved in approaching a heist/crime film as though it were a character drama. Raimi builds suspense like a master, overlaying the story with telling small-town details and a well-sustained tone of enveloping dread and tragedy. Even the bleak, wintry landscape seems less the work of Mother Nature than an ill-effects response to the numbing effects of greed.
Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, and Brent Briscoe
Indeed, the weather is practically another character in A Simple Plan. I credit Raimi with giving his film a look representative of what its nearing-middle-age characters’ lives must feel like: constrained, hemmed-in, and as anchored as the figures in a snow globe. As Sarah brutally lays out in a scene of clear-eyed fatalism, when it comes to what possibilities life holds for these average, unexceptional people, the die is pretty much cast. Many scenes begin with shots of vast, icy stillness or crow-eye-views of limitless banks of snow and nothingness.
Even at the very start of the film, when the streets are adorned with Christmas decorations and Hank walks with a lightness we’ll never see in him again, at no time is the snow made to appear picturesque or poetic. From the frosted windows, slate-gray skies, and characters swathed in layers and layers of insulated clothing (even indoors); the weather is presented as just another hardship. A severe, isolating, suffocating obstacle to an easier life. 

Gary Cole as Neil Baxter

PERFORMANCES
A Simple Plan's Oscar-nominated screenplay is by first-time screenwriter Scott B. Smith, adapted from his own 1993 novel. Paring down the story to the bare bones of its suspense-thriller structure, Smith's economic screenplay combines a strong eye for the shortcuts of visual storytelling with an ear for the kind of character-establishing dialogue one associates with a stage play. The tension-filled narrative flows easily from plot twist to plot twist, never once feeling contrived or labored. Best of all, he manages to accomplish all this while keeping the film’s central focus on the disintegrating relationships between the characters, and the telling ways they respond to having their theoretical (superficial?) principles tested by a genuine moral dilemma.
Without the benefit of much in the way of backstory, Smith’s characters, whether in moments of monstrous callousness or pitiable despair, are granted a level of humanity lacking in the novel. A grace attributable to the authenticity and depth of emotion the cast brings to their characters.

Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton (who appeared together in 1992’s One False Move) share a symbiotic anti-chemistry as the brothers with nothing in common “…except maybe our last name.” The late Bill Paxton, whose settled-in boyishness lends his Hank the look of a self-disappointed fair-haired child, is all agitated exasperation and impatience in his scenes with Thornton. College-educated and preppy-fastidious next to the town’s hayseed casual, one senses Hank enjoys feeling like the civilized big fish in a little pond. Paxton taps into the seeds of disenchantment that lay just below the surface of Hank's easygoing affability. Paxton is terrific and it's easy to see why he was so often cast as likable characters. He radiated an easy openness and accessibility masking layers of complexity.
Sarah Discovers the Source of the Money 
Personal fave Bridget Fonda (Single White Female), exuding almost Shakespearean-levels of steely dominance, proves to be as much of a surprise and dramatic force-to-be-reckoned-with as Thornton. From the moment her character is introduced we’re made aware of how smart she is, but as the promise of “what can be” comes to poison her tolerance for “what is,” she morphs into something of a domestic underworld mastermind. It's great fun (and plenty scary, too) to witness her transformation from bubbly bride to hardened housewife... like Carroll Baker running that all-lady hit squad out of her kitchen in Andy Warhol’s BAD.

Brent Briscoe as the oafish Lou is a Master Class lesson in how to humanize an unintelligent character lacking in self-awareness. He even achieves the impossible by playing a drunk scene convincingly. Pouring a life's worth of resentment into the way he unfailingly refers to Hank as “Mr. Accountant,” Briscoe's pivotal drunk scene calls for whiplash emotional shifts from jocularity, betrayal, heartsickness, desperation, and ultimately, rage. Briscoe plays it in a manner that takes us with him on this rollercoaster, letting us see where these emotions come from. 
Billy Bob Thornton pulls off something similar, but on a much more heroic scale, with his brilliant turn as Jacob. True, it’s become an Oscar-bait cliché for an actor to deglamorize, adopt intellectual disabilities, or lose themselves under pounds of prosthetics; but Thornton's external transformation is no acting stunt. The change in his outward appearance is largely the result of what's he's doing on the inside; Thornton inhabits his character.
In showing us the man behind the loser’s countenance, Thornton sidesteps the easy pathos, revealing Jacob to be one of the least self-deluded characters in the film, one wholly lacking in self-pity. One of A Simple Plan’s many twists is the upending of the expectation that the relationship of these polar-opposites brothers might bear a trace of a George and Lennie Of Mice and Men dynamic. Far from it. In a particularly uncomfortable scene (exceptionally well-played by Paxton), the casually supercilious Hank learns that the misfit Jacob not only mocks him behind his back, but regards him with a level of disdain that borders on contempt.



THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I think one of the major reasons I love movies about “plans gone awry” is because I’m a control freak and lifelong non-joiner who goes out of his way to avoid groups, teams, and collaborations of any kind. These movies confirm my worst fears. My favorites: Silent Partner (1978), Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, (2007), What Became of Jack and Jill? (1972), Jackie Brown (1997), The Killing (1956), Fargo (1996), and Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)—all involve meticulously arranged plans going awry due to the human factor. The factor of error born of disparate characters pursuing the same goal, but for wildly different reasons.
"Did you tell him about the plane?"
A major thrill to be had in watching A Simple Plan is getting caught up in the yo-yo pull of being initially drawn to one character, only to be confronted with something unsavory in them, then suddenly having your sympathies shifted elsewhere. The trick of making the viewer complicit in a crime is nothing new (Hitchcock’s Psycho), but the quality of performances in A Simple Plan raises the emotional stakes and ups the tension ante. By the time the film arrived at its crushing conclusion, I was fairly wrung out from the suspense.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The first words spoken in A Simple Plan belong to Hank, recounting in voiceover something his late father (a simple farmer who lost his land to debt) once said to him about what it takes for a man to be happy: “A wife he loves, a decent job, friends and neighbors who like and respect him.” Hank, in carving out a life for himself substantially more stable than that of his parents, has attained all of these. Hank and Sarah both work at jobs neither finds particularly fulfilling: she at a library, he as an accountant at the local feed mill; but with a nice home, the respect of the community, and a baby on the way, they have realized a humble their version of the American Dream.
But built into the American Dream is a paradox: a reverence for achievement, ambition, and accumulation that’s at fundamental cross-purposes with being content with what one has. As a culture, we don't seem to respect people who are happy in their lot…we call them slackers and underachievers. Yet for people who devote their time and efforts to amassing and hoarding obscene levels of wealth, we've only terms of admiration.
A Simple Plan reveals that Hank, like many people in this country, has adopted the belief that having more is always preferable to having enough. He can’t conceive of happiness as a place in the present, only an idealized destination point on the horizon of some nebulous “future.”
This thematic subtext underscores everything that happens in A Simple Plan, asking us to examine the moral distinction...if there exists one...between need and want. Happiness is always held up as the ultimate goal behind all the greed and hunger for acquisition our society seems to worship. We keep telling people to dream big and set their sights high, to meet goals and then set bigger ones when those are achieved. But does there ever come a time when chasing after the next big thing is too high a price to pay for happiness? 


As each news cycle brings with it increasingly disheartening evidence of America’s rapidly disintegrating moral compass; as absurd and corrupt “leaders” normalize justification and deception while distorting the values of truth and honesty in the interest of money and power; I’m afraid A Simple Plan already reveals itself to be a bit of a timepiece in suggesting that the loss of one’s humanity is a loss of considerable significance.



BONUS MATERIAL
Mr. Schmitt, a disgruntled customer accusing Hank of faulty bookkeeping, was played by actor and producer John Paxton, the 77-year-old father of Bill Paxton. John Paxton died in 2011.



Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2019