Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The fourth season of FX’s small-screen Fargo starts, so we’re singling out “Coenesque” movies, i.e. ones influenced by or imitative of the work of those famous sibling filmmakers.
Between 1984 and 1986, one of the hippest places to hang out in Los Angeles might’ve been a three-bedroom house in Silver Lake, where brothers Joel and Ethan Coen lived with brothers Sam and Ivan Raimi, joined at various times by Frances McDormand (who found the place, and later married Joel), Holly Hunter, and Kathy Bates. At the time, Sam Raimi had written and directed the stylish and witty horror classic The Evil Dead, and the Coens had made the hip neo-noir Blood Simple. The latter pair had also contributed ideas to the screenplay for Raimi’s slapstick gangland picture Crimewave, and would later help shape his cult-favorite 1990 superhero movie Darkman. Raimi returned the favors by collaborating on the script for the Coens’ 1994 screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy. In a lot of ways, these guys were all fellow travelers.
As the ’90s progressed, however, the filmmakers’ paths began to diverge: Raimi kept making oddball hybrids of broad comedy and B-pictures (like Army Of Darkness and The Quick And The Dead), while his old roommates made movies that won prizes at major international film festivals. The Coens completed their assimilation into the Hollywood establishment with 1996’s Fargo, an arty and arch crime dramedy nominated for seven Oscars. Raimi then belatedly made his own unexpected play for respectability, accepting a last-minute fill-in assignment to direct an adaptation of Scott Smith’s acclaimed 1993 novel A Simple Plan, another thriller about ordinary people enticed by greed and need. The movie even shifts the setting of Smith’s book from Ohio to Minnesota, where Fargo is set (though the locations were actually picked by two of the directors previously attached to the project, Mike Nichols and John Boorman).
A Simple Plan is well-acted, atmospheric, and gripping. But what’s especially remarkable is how restrained it is, given who’s behind the camera. Even in the Coens’ more “serious” movies (like Fargo), there are loopy moments and eccentric characters. And most of Raimi’s post-Simple Plan pictures, like Drag Me To Hell and the Spider-Man trilogy, can get pretty gonzo. But Raimi eschews flashy camera moves in A Simple Plan, relying on precisely composed, mostly static medium and long shots—peppered with a lot of close-up reactions—to tell Smith’s story of two working-class brothers who find over four million dollars inside a downed airplane in the woods, and then have to resort to lying and violence to protect it.
Raimi’s approach lets the movie’s excellent cast carry its meaning. The late Bill Paxton gave the best performance of his career as Hank Mitchell, a feed-store manager who lives in a nice house with his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda). Billy Bob Thornton—Oscar-nominated for this role—plays Hank’s mild-mannered screw-up of an older brother, Jacob, who can’t hold a job and spends most of his days drinking beer and cracking jokes with his bitter buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe). The twisty plot tracks how every choice the Mitchell brothers make gets them deeper into trouble, but the story is really about how Hank has always felt burdened by Jacob, and how Jacob resents Hank’s snobbery.
Like Fargo, A Simple Plan proceeds on a path with its own cruel logic, getting increasingly tense. But unlike those of his buddies the Coens, Raimi’s tastes lean more toward gory horror than literary pulp, which may be why his A Simple Plan has such an unforgiving heart. Both movies are chilling tales of people who feel trapped by their dead-end jobs and suffocating families. But where Fargo suggests that even a cold, gray Minnesota landscape can sometimes be warm and inviting, A Simple Plan sees its small town as an inescapable trap, in which no one ever flies away but only crashes.