"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The violence in “A Simple Plan” is the result of basically good people making fundamentally bad choices. In Sam Raimi’s snowbound Midwestern noir, the characters are presented with an awful chance at something better than their dead-end, small-town jobs, their cradle-to-grave money worries. When they take that chance, they face the terrible possibility of losing even the circumscribed existence they’re trying to escape.
These aren’t the rubes of “Fargo,” characters who exist only to be ridiculed. Raimi won’t allow us that superior distance. Because we like these people, because we want desperately for them to be OK, we become complicit in their actions. “A Simple Plan” holds us in a state of horrified empathy. The characters suspect that everything is going to turn out badly, but they can’t extricate themselves from the trap they’ve set in motion, and so the film takes on a feeling of inexorability. The snow that blankets everything in sight here lends an unsettling quietness to even the characters’ most extreme actions.
The story, adapted by Scott B. Smith from his novel of the same name, is set in motion when Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s perennially broke drinking buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) are tramping through a snow-covered field one winter’s afternoon and stumble upon a crashed small-engine airplane. Inside is the dead pilot and $4.4 million in cash. Hank’s immediate impulse is to tell the cops. Lou, who’s not about to let this treasure slip through his fingers, convinces Hank that they’ve probably found drug money and that they’d be foolish to give it up. Hank reluctantly agrees, but on his terms. He tells Lou and Jacob he’ll hold the money until the spring. If nobody claims it by then, the three of them will split it up and leave town. Hank is taking no chances. Any deviation from the plan, he warns the others, and he burns the cash. It’s New Year’s Eve and they hope for a new beginning. But the film’s title, of course, is intended ironically.
The story of a group of people who try to keep a secret that can’t stay hidden is a classic pulp setup. Raimi doesn’t treat it like pulp, though. He’s long been one of the most cartoonish of filmmakers, and I’ve enjoyed his bughouse energy in movies like “Evil Dead 2″ and his western pastiche “The Quick and the Dead.” But nothing in his previous work prepares you for the sobriety and control — and, finally, the emotional devastation — he brings to Smith’s script.
The material had passed to several directors before Raimi was hired on, and clearly he sees it as his chance to prove himself a serious filmmaker. Working with cinematographer Alar Kivilo, Raimi makes the bleak winter landscapes a metaphor for his characters’ states of mind. His work is, at times, too somber, too deliberate: The buzzards that loom in the opening credits are too obvious a symbol of what will follow. And there’s no getting around the fact that the movie is something of a downer. But it deserves the gravity Raimi accords it.
Usually, when pop entertainers decide to get serious, they feel that they have to forsake the energy and cunning that often made their work so enjoyable to begin with. Watching “A Simple Plan,” I got the feeling that Raimi was drawing on everything he’d learned about how to tell a story, how to involve an audience. He never forgets he’s making an entertainment (albeit a grim one), yet he’s proceeding from the conviction that there has to be something more to pop movies than crashes and explosions, killings and death dismissed with snappy catch phrases, computer effects and flashy editing.
Raimi seems to have reached the conclusion Stephen King does at the end of his latest book, “Bag of Bones,” when his novelist-hero writes, “I believe that even make-believe murder should be taken seriously.” Raimi takes the violence in “A Simple Plan” very seriously. I don’t want to oversell the movie or imply it’s in a class that it isn’t. But maybe the best way to impart an idea of its tone is by saying that Raimi treads the fine line of “The Wages of Fear” or the scene in “The Godfather” when Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone kills for the first time (the tensest scene in any movie ever). He manages to keep the audience in suspense without ever exploiting the attendant violence for cheap thrills. By the last half-hour of the film, with its almost unbearably suspenseful climax, you’re so keyed up that you can’t tell whether Hank is exhibiting paranoia or common sense. When violence erupts, it’s not so much a release as a realization of your worst fears. There’s never a moment here when the violence doesn’t carry weight.
When Hank Mitchell commits violence for the first time, Raimi keeps his camera squarely on Paxton’s face. What we see there is more deeply horrifying than any depiction of mayhem: a man doing something that, until that moment, he would have sworn he was incapable of doing. The scene registers because there’s no actor alive who’s better than Paxton at playing ordinary men without making them patronizingly simple or dull. Paxton (who suggests what Gary Cooper might have been if his early sex appeal hadn’t been knocked out of him) is immediately likable and trustworthy in the way that Joel McCrea was. As Hank, he’s playing the good American who believes that hard work and honesty are what will reward him and his pregnant wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda). Paxton puts living flesh on those iconic bones. He doesn’t make Hank’s dedication to honesty naive. That dedication is Hank’s compass; and the most pitiable and terrifying thing about Paxton’s performance is, after that compass is smashed, watching Hank find his footing in the new territory he enters.
Fonda’s Sarah prods Hank in that direction. Our first glimpse of her, fresh from the bath with her robe open to reveal her pregnant belly, is meant to radiate a simple purity. That’s the image Raimi and Fonda want to be in our minds when Sarah is caught up in the same hunger that descends on the men. With her sparkling eyes and upturned, slightly cleft nose, Fonda is often a ray of sunshine on-screen. She uses that sunny openness to startlingly different effect here, and I’m not sure that audiences will be prepared to accept just how far she goes. The movie’s most powerful image of corruption is the sight of Fonda’s fresh young face articulating the next steps in the scheme. She’s nothing as simplistic (or misogynist) as the conniving femme fatale. Raimi complicates things by giving Sarah the film’s most impassioned speech, a relentlessly detailed plea to Hank to consider what their lives will be without the money. This isn’t one of the down-and-outers of film noir dreaming of the big score that will land them on Easy Street. It’s an average, normal human being articulating limits that, in one way or another, describe the lives of many of us. What’s so unsettling in the scene is how reasonable her expectations are, and how reasonable those expectations make her proposed solutions sound.
Reportedly, Billy Bob Thornton almost didn’t get cast as Jacob. The director who was supposed to make “A Simple Plan” before Raimi, John Boorman, supposedly had to fight for the then-unknown Thornton. (After “Sling Blade,” when the studio was happy to cast Thornton, Boorman was no longer available to make the film.) He was right to insist, though. It takes some getting used to Thornton, in his long stringy hair and nerd glasses. And it’s a role that could easily be a bummer, the saintly simpleton. But Jacob has a painful awareness of his limitations, and a rock-solid, tragic knowledge of who he is. It’s not just an affectation when all he can imagine doing with his share of the money is getting himself a new truck. (It’s like the wonderful, heartbreaking moment in “Dog Day Afternoon” when Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik tells his bank-robbing partner, Sal (John Cazale), that they have to leave the country and asks him where he’s always wanted to go, and Cazale answers, “Wyoming.”) Thornton makes Jacob stand for something like what he represents to Hank and Sarah — a puzzlement, a burden and a part of their lives that they don’t think about much simply because they always expect him to be there. It’s a performance that, by the end of the movie, has grown in stature.
Even if “A Simple Plan” weren’t as solidly and intelligently made, even if it weren’t as finely acted, its willingness to let us feel for its characters would be enough to distinguish it from lots of other movies around right now. The common meaning of recent movies as disparate as “Elizabeth” or the repugnant “Very Bad Things” (in which being shocked means admitting you’re not hip enough to laugh at the mounting tally of disfigurements and killings) seems to be the irredeemable rottenness of human beings. In this atmosphere, the piddling vision of Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” a movie in which the characters are examined as if they were captured insects suffocating in a jar, is acclaimed as tough-mindedly compassionate. Raimi has chosen to move beyond shallow, cartoon mayhem at a time when some of the most acclaimed films are embracing it, and when audiences seem eager for that kind of shallowness. By treating the violence in “A Simple Plan” as a horrifically plausible betrayal of his characters’ humanity, rather than as a blasi confirmation of what scum they are, Raimi has acted with true decency. In some ways, “A Simple Plan” is the most fitting holiday movie around.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)