Reel Rumbles #40: ‘A Simple Plan’ vs. ‘The Green Mile’

2 Dec

In This Corner…

Sometimes good people do evil things.

Sometimes, it arises from a false sense of security, the mistaken idea of a victimless crime. Sometimes, it’s just part of the job. In this episode of Reel Rumbles, two films face off that feature decent characters performing heinous acts. The circumstances are different, but the results are the same: The lives of Hank Mitchell and Paul Edgecombe are forever altered by the very bad things they are forced – or choose – to do.

Join us for a walk on the darker side of humanity with A Simple Plan vs. The Green Mile

Round One: Story

“Do you ever feel evil?”

Three men – two brothers, and a friend – find the American dream…in a gym bag. Four million dollars, hidden in a crashed airplane that has obviously gone undiscovered for some time. Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) wants to just walk away, but when Lou Chambers (Brent Briscoe) suggests they keep the money, things go downhill quickly. The idea that they could actually pull this off – coupled with the thought of improving the quality of life for his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), and slow-witted brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) – goes to Hank’s head, and he immediately assumes control of the situation.

Hank offers up A Simple Plan: He will take possession of the money; they will wait, and not split it up until they are certain that no one is looking for it. But when a misguided attempt to return to the plane and cover his tracks leads to a tense situation, Hank – by all accounts, a decent man – finds himself committing murder to conceal his crime. And with each passing day, the circumstances grow more dire…and the body count rises, as Hank discovers just how far he will go to hold on to the money. We, the audience, are along for the ride as Hank’s simple plan falls apart, and his life is thrown into chaos.

Meanwhile, Paul Edgecombe (Tom Hanks) is a prison guard on Cold Mountain Penitentiary’s E Block - The Green Miledeath row – during the Great Depression. On a daily basis, he deals with violent criminals – not to mention spoiled Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), whose family connections can get him any government job he wants…but he just wants to watch condemned men cook on Old Sparky, The Green Mile’s electric chair.

One day, a new inmate comes to the Mile, in the hulking form of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a monstrous black man condemned for the murder of two young white girls. And life on E Block will never be the same. For as time passes, not only does it become apparent to Paul and his fellow prison guards that Coffey did not commit those murders, but the gentle brute of a man possesses extraordinary gifts that simply defy explanation…

A Simple Plan is a razor-sharp thriller that delves into a dark place in the human psyche: Just how far will a good man go when presented with an extraordinary opportunity? The Green Mile presents its protagonist with an impossible situation, and explores some pretty complex issues, not the least of which is the effectiveness of the justice system and the death penalty. (There’s also a religious allegory that’s difficult to ignore.)

They are both extraordinary tales. It’s tempting to award this round to The Green Mile for some of its deeper themes, but there’s something undeniably great about how A Simple Plan really does keep it simple. As such, it wins this round, by a nose.

Round Two: Script

“I guess sometimes the past just catches up with you, whether you want it to or not.”

These two films are in a minority on my Flickchart in that I’ve actually read both of the novels they are based on. And they are both extraordinary adaptations. Often, you hear the mantra “The book was better.” Impressively, that’s not necessarily the case here. In both instances, I knew and loved the films first, but upon reading the books, I was surprised just how well-done the adaptations were.

With A Simple Plan, novelist Scott Smith adapts his own work, and he makes a decision that highly benefits the film: He jettisons most of the second half of the novel. A major character’s death is moved from the middle of the story to the end, and becomes a highly effective climax. The result is a slimmer, more efficient story that works extremely well for a movie.

Upon reading The Green Mile, I was astonished at how completely writer/director Frank Darabont was able to cram the entire plot of Stephen King’s serial novel into one movie. Granted, the movie is three hours, even before the credits roll, but the entire plot is there, and the run time just ticks by.

A Simple Plan is a screenplay that I feel perfectly compliments the book, a wonderful companion piece. The Green Mile is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation, and where it makes minor tweaks to the story, I feel they enhance, rather than detract from the tale. A very close round, but The Green Mile lands an extra punch to pull it off, 10-9.

Round Three: Performances

“Nobody’d ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done.”

At first glance, it would seem almost unfair to pit the leads in these two films against each other: Tom Hanks vs. Bill Paxton? Sounds like a total knockout. Except it’s not. First and foremost, Hanks is Hanks. Even when the man is in a sub-par film, have you ever seen him deliver a truly bad performance? The biggest thing about Tom Hanks in The Green Mile is that it is not one of the man’s most heralded standout performances. But, of course, he’s perfect as Paul Edgecombe, a highly conflicted man faced with an unspeakably difficult decision.

Meanwhile, in A Simple Plan, Bill Paxton – the man probably still best known as Private “Game Over, Man!” Hudson in Aliens - does some of the best work of his career. Paxton plays the Everyman so perfectly, it really is shocking when his Hank Mitchell makes some despicable choices in the name of making a better life for himself and his young family. Backing him up perfectly is Bridget Fonda as his wife, Sarah, chilling in the way she comes to accept Hank’s simple plan…and then help him choreograph every subsequent move.

Still, as good as the leads are, the most memorable performances in A Simple Plan and The Green Mile are the ones that garnered these films Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor.

In the guise of Billy Bob Thornton, Jacob Mitchell – Hank’s brother – is transformed from the grotesque lout of a man depicted in Smith’s novel to a lonely, somewhat slow loser who engenders genuine pity. Jacob has never even kissed a girl; all he wants to do is rebuild his parents’ dilapidated farm; the money would go a long way in changing his life for the better, if it hadn’t destroyed it.

Back on the Mile, Michael Clarke Duncan is a mountain of a man with his simple heart on his sleeve. Every emotion simply radiates from the man’s face: utter fear on the Mile, heart-rending sorrow at the deaths of two young white girls…pure happiness in relishing in the simple things in life, such as a free man’s view of the night sky, or a mouse playing with a spool. It’s interesting that the simple and rather dim-witted – yet wise in ways others are not – characters in both casts create the films’ most affecting performances.

Indeed, the leads in these two movies are pretty evenly matched. But where The Green Mile outdoes A Simple Plan is in the creation of a fantastic supporting cast. Maybe it’s equal parts longer running time and big-name casting, but every member of The Green Mile‘s cast is fleshed out in a way that many movies boasting a roster of similar size can’t match. From Sam Rockwell‘s turn as “Wild Bill” Wharton – by turns hilarious and absolutely chilling – to Harry Dean Stanton‘s hoot of a Toot, from James Cromwell‘s tortured Warden Moores, facing the impending death of his wife, to David Morse as “Brutal” Howell, stalwart support for Hanks’ Edgecombe, it’s a dream cast. The true standouts after Duncan, however, are Doug Hutchison as the utterly contemptible Percy Wetmore, and Michael Jeter, masterful as Eduard Delacroix, who receives a very bad death indeed.

There are many names I’ve left out; suffice to say, The Green Mile features an ensemble cast to die for. What the cast of A Simple Plan does, they do very well indeed. The Green Mile just has so much more of a good thing, and handily wins this round, 10-8.

Incidentally, the one cast member these films share is Brent Briscoe, who has two pretty different roles. In A Simple Plan, he’s the fourth great lead as Lou Chambers, a mean-spirited drunk. In The Green Mile, his role as a prison guard is brief; nonetheless, he gets one of the movie’s best lines: “I think this boy’s cheese has done slid off his cracker…”

Round Four: Direction

“I’ve done some things in my life I’m not proud of, but this is the first time I’ve ever felt in real danger of hell.”

Sam Raimi and Frank Darabont are both directors with strong ties to horror films, yet some of the best work that both have done does not fall within that genre. Neither A Simple Plan nor The Green Mile is a horror movie, yet both feature some touches that hearken back to their directors’ cinematic roots.

With A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi made an efficient, effective thriller. There are a few moments designed to make you jump, but the horror in this movie is far more subtle than that of Raimi’s Evil Dead films. He keeps the pacing tight, and the focus squarely on the machinations of a “good” man making too many wrong decisions.

The Green Mile is, by turns, horrifying, haunting and beautiful. Certainly, there’s nothing in the film that smacks of pure horror more than the botched execution of Eduard Delacroix, though the memories of the two dead girls come close. Frank Darabont handles scenes like that and quiet moments of touching dialogue with equal aplomb.

The Green Mile is much more of a slow burn than A Simple Plan. Indeed, it’s over an hour longer. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a wasted frame in either of these films. Does Darabont deserve extra points for crafting his own screenplay? Well, this round isn’t about the writing. There is an extra level of complexity to The Green Mile, as Darabont works within a period setting, and does a beautiful job transporting the audience back to the 1930s. It seems like a minor distinction, but it’s enough to allow him to narrowly steal this round from Raimi, 10-9.

And the Winner Is…

These are both expertly crafted films. A Simple Plan is a knockout of a thriller that doesn’t pull any punches, but the extra layers of The Green Mile provide a richer experience. Both movies are worth a watch (or three), but the winner of this bout is The Green Mile.

Author’s Note: According to Flickchart, only 27% of users who have come across A Simple Plan in the rankings have seen it. (Compare this to 69% for The Green Mile.) If you’re in the majority who hasn’t, and you like a good thriller, I highly recommend you check it out.

Previously, in Reel Rumbles:

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