Bad Santa’s many, many fans can now finally rejoice. Billy Bob Thornton’s foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Santa-for-hire is back for a second outing in the long-awaited and much-welcome sequel Bad Santa 2. While the first film was far from a hit, it has since developed a surprising cult following in what may now be considered the actor’s most iconic role.
Bad Santa may well be the character Thornton is best remembered for in the future, but if there’s one other role which deserves such an honor, it’s his performance as the damaged Jacob in the utterly superb 1998 Sam Raimi thriller A Simple Plan.
Set in a desolate early winter in the Midwest, A Simple Plan opens on Hank (Bill Paxton), the manager of a feed store, who is enjoying an innocent hunting trip with his brother Jacob (Thornton) and Jacob’s best friend Lou (Brent Briscoe). When the trio discovers a fallen airplane with an unidentified dead pilot, the men decide to contact the police. However, when they also discover a large duffel bag full of millions of dollars inside, the men re-think the idea. While Hank still wants to call the police, Jacob and Lou want to keep the body a secret and make off with the money, which they insist is now up for grabs. Though Hank doesn’t completely agree, he finds himself tempted and decides that the money will be kept in his home for 60 days until the body has been discovered and it is certain that no one will come looking. While Jacob and Lou agree, as does Hank’s wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda), it isn’t long before questionable alliances begin to form and a number of surprising elements force the plan to change.
Any doubts as to whether or not Raimi, the helmer of many a horror film, could handle a scare-free thriller were completely obliterated with one viewing of A Simple Plan. The film so perfectly adopts everything that makes the genre work. To begin with, virtually everyone on the screen is an anti-hero with motives as plain as day, yet actions which cannot always be seen coming. The way the twists develop throughout Raimi’s film are expected, yet happen at such a drop of a hat as to take even the most ardent lover of thrillers aback. A Simple Plan is the kind of film where the ringing of a telephone can signal danger and the appearance of any person, friend or stranger, is cause for worry. Above all, though, it’s the idea of the millions at stake, which although present throughout, prove to be excruciatingly unattainable and somewhat menacing; almost as if it was the money itself acting as a real entity, sitting back and orchestrating nothing but havoc, dread, and fear on its subjects.
At the heart of A Simple Plan is a tragic tale of a pair of brothers. One brother has done everything by the book: he’s gone to school, he’s found himself a decent job, he’s married a woman whom he loves and who loves him back; and while his life is small, there’s value in it that he recognizes and cherishes. The other brother never got the chances his brother had, namely because when they turned up, he was unable to embrace them. As a result, Jacob has been a sort of fragile individual; a sort of mental wanderer who has remained introverted and has accepted a paltry existence as his life. While both brothers love each other to no end, it is clear that Hank’s reluctance to take full claim of the money is taken by Jacob as a way to keep him where he is, ensuring that the former remains the more victorious of the two when it comes to life. In the end, it is a question of whether the temptation of millions of dollars has the ability to destroy the shaky, yet still living love and bond that both Hank and Jacob share which helps to make A Simple Plan poetic as well as exciting.
While there is some incredibly fine character work done by Briscoe, as well as Chelcie Ross as the town’s sheriff and Gary Cole as a questionable FBI agent, it’s Paxton, Fonda, and Thornton who hold court throughout A Simple Plan. Paxton never had a better leading role than he does here. The way he expresses Hank’s anguish at being torn between his brother and his wife is always felt, as is his anxiety at having to stay one step ahead of the aforementioned plan in all its unpredictability. Fonda is perfectly cast as a Lady Macbeth type of woman. Watching her act as Hank’s backbone until she eventually lets the promise of a life of wealth take over allows the actress to explore territory she’d never been trusted with before. Finally, as Jacob, a sort of stunted man-child, Thornton is completely heartbreaking playing a man who has found that his one last chance at a real life may well be his undoing.
Despite having the makings of a solid hit, A Simple Plan was a total bomb at the box office, not even making back half of its reported budget. What the film lacked in ticket sales, however, it more than made up for in critical acclaim as the film turned up in virtually every critic’s end of year top ten list, eventually receiving Oscar nominations for Thornton as Best Supporting Actor and and Best Adapted Screenplay for Scott B. Smith, who adapted his own bestselling novel.
Besides the film earning praise for its ability to craft a smart and exhilarating thriller with a deep comment on family bonds, one of the more unsung reasons behind A Simple Plan’s warm critical reception was its depiction of America. In so many ways, this is about as American as a film in the late ’90s could get through the way it illustrated the idea of the American dream. A Simple Plan’s brilliance lies in how powerful, elusive, and fulfilling the mere premise of attaining the American dream can be, and how it has the to ability to totally destroy those who will go to any means necessary to capture it.