Reviews - A Simple Plan

Review #1 by the Groovy Yak

It's a shame when brilliant, thought-provoking films like A Simple Plan get little or no recognition from the masses. I've mentioned the film to some of my friends and family since viewing it (6/99) and no one knew that such a film existed. It's clearly one of the best films (so-far) of 1999- a film that reminds me a lot of the old Alfred Hitchcock thrillers- Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Birds (for instances you'll notice quickly in the film.)
In case you are one of the many who haven't heard of A Simple Plan, the story takes place in a northern Midwest town in the middle of winter. Hank- the common man and protagonist, his slow-on-the-uptake brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thorton), and Jacob's best friend - the town drunk named Lou (Brent Briscoe), find 4.4 million dollars in a crashed plane. Reluctantly, Hank decides to keep the money and split it 3 ways after the plane is eventually found by the authorities when the snow melts in spring- that way if the authorities came looking for the cash, he could quickly burn it. Well, that plan sounds simple enough, doesn't it? However, when Hank reveals the cash to his sweet wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), she begins to come up with schemes to make sure they keep the money, which starts a chain reaction of events- each more deadlier than the preceding one until the shocking climax of the film. I'll reveal the climax later in the review. I'd recommend to those who haven't seen the film to stop reading at this point until you've seen the film.
Elfman's music isn't quite as simple as the plan, though. The instrumentation of a Simple Plan contains an extremely odd combination of instruments. And this isn't like a Thomas Newman or Elliot Goldenthal score where we get weird metallic sounds or human breathing in one track and then in the next its back to the strings- Elfman sticks with his choice of instruments throughout the entire score. There's no "real" brass or percussion in ASP, there's only a large group of woodwinds, a large group of strings (including guitars, banjo and harps), piano, and the sampled sounds (which contain some percussion and brass sounds). The score contains two primary themes which weave in and out of each cue. They ARE simple themes. However, its the way Elfman rhythmically and harmonically plays with them that makes them so much fun.
Perhaps the word "fun" is a misnomer. I think that word should stay far away from any review for this score. A Simple Plan is a dark, cold, and purely Elfmanesque experience. Those expecting something along the lines of Carter Burwell's Fargo should hit their "Back" button now as they'll undoubtedly be disappointed with A Simple Plan. Like most of Elfman's more dramatic works, it took me quite a while to _understand_ his score. I still am figuring out many of the intricacies of it. Analyzing A Simple Plan is much like staring at an impressionistic artwork- it's quite difficult to take it all in at first, as opposed to a Norman Rockwell painting that instantly evokes feelings of reminisce. I suspect that this is the problem that many will have with the score as its quite inaccessible and not an enjoyable listening experience. Many film score fans want all of their scores to be like Titanic, Star Wars, or Batman- a pleasant listening experience where each cue reminds you of the action in the film. A Simple Plan is about as far as you can get from these scores. Most of the cues serve more as atmosphere and if there's any Mickey-Mousing in the score, its too subtle for me to pick up. (I actually had to e-mail my friend Ryan Keaveney who is an ASP expert for help with this review because I just couldn't place cues with their appropriate scenes.)
But what an atmosphere Elfman creates! There's a sense of doom that lingers throughout the score. This is attributed to the use of de-tuned instruments. It's one of the most interesting effects I've heard in a film score. In the very opening of the score we hear the sound of a piano that sounds like a piano in some of the old practice rooms at MSU! There's also some interesting detuned guitar sounds. To keep with the symbolism in the movie of birds looming overhead, waiting for the death of others, Elfman uses a full palette of flutes and other woodwinds to create the sound of birds "cawing." He even uses extremely rare woodwinds like the alto flute. Another effect that we hear (most notably in the main titles and end credits) is an odd "hillbilly" accompaniment with banjos and guitars. Perhaps Elfman is referring to the character of Lou, as all of the other characters don't really fit the description of being a hillbilly.
A Simple Plan is more of a cerebral listening experience than an emotional one. It's interesting to hear what effect Elfman is going to use next or what variation he's going to make with the main theme or Jacob's theme. However, Elfman does lay his finger on the emotion button every once in a while in A Simple Plan. While the main theme is merely a theme for the movie and provides something that the rest of the score can pivot on, its the haunting Jacob's theme that Elfman uses to provide some emotion to the score. Through Jacob's theme, we get a sense that Jacob isn't the idiot that we are led to believe he is. He's a sensitive man with definite morals, and the theme eloquently paints that picture of him for us. During the last act of the film, Raimi gives us long shots of Jacob's face as he sits and thinks about all that he has done so far. Elfman's music in these scenes musically tell us the conflict in Jacob's mind. And then there's the shocking finale. In that cue, Death, Elfman gives us a beautiful rendition of the theme that shows us what a noble character Jacob is.
Perhaps my words sell the score a little short. The score works incredibly well within the film and is one of Elfman's most creative scores ever. I haven't been this impressed with an Elfman dramatic score since Dolores Claiborne. Compass III (Now known as Chapter III) did a reasonably good job with the album (as you can tell, the picture on the back of the CD has become part of this site's logo.) There's a couple of really good cues left off the album, though. (There's a truly excellent Elfmanish cue where Hank tries to cover up his brother's blunder by driving a snowmobile with a dead old man into a river. There's also a great cue where Hank is fumbling for the right bullets in the sheriff's office.)
I recommend A Simple Plan, but with extreme reservation. Don't miss the film either. I strongly recommend it! The music deserves * * * * in the film, but as a listening experience, I feel many people will find it too difficult to listen to. In that case, I'll give the score * * *.
(Old Rating: * * *)

Review #2 by Ian Davis

Perhaps it is the film's concern with the minutiae of human interaction and logic under stress which gave Elfman the creative nudge to make his score for A Simple Plan far superior to its neighbouring work, A Civil Action. A Simple Plan is played out by all characters in such an unassuming manner the underlying tone of situations spiralling out of control in this movie relies heavily upon the composer to come up with something riveting and eerie. Whatever my own opinion of the soundtrack on CD, Elfman's success on film cannot be questioned.
This is one of Elfman's most Bernard Herrmannesque scores to date. For Herrmann sound-world and psychology were priorities: one for a film's over-all identity, the other for the audience's participation in the plot. If strings are the prime focus of Dolores Claiborne, it is the flute family which dominates A Simple Plan. Elfman's invention is nearly inexhaustible --he explores much (but happily by no means all) of the 20th century repertoire's tampering with the 'traditional' western approach to flute playing, using it as much as an atmospheric tool as foreground musical dialogue. We hear flexible intonation, quarter-tones, over-blowing, flutter-tonguing, various degrees of articulation, not to mention hearing the flute in upper, middle and lower registers. It pays to listen out for the magical moments such as towards the end of track 9 when a solo flute reaches out melodically in its middle, singing register; and the gloomy effect of its lower register is a most powerful and least tapped potential for this instrument.
In addition Elfman is prepared to pit a full menagerie of flutes against twanging guitars (reflecting an all-but ethnic folksy setting), harp, a battery of tuned and untuned percussion, a piano (prepared for quarter-tones in track 8 particularly) and a subtle wash of strings. The combined flute texture ranges through thick, low for thematic substance, sparse, and shrill. This last is most reminiscent of Herrmann in his collaborations with Hitchcock: it links the running tone and character psychology of the film with its visual idee fixe of crows throughout.
[Herrmann comes close to a literal representation of this in The Birds when he uses only birdlike sounds for the whole movie (where birds, particularly crows and gulls attack an isolated fishing village for no apparent reason). In the two-thirds of the film before anything violent occurs, birds are continually discussed, mentioned in passing or shown in the background. As unease modulates into panic the bird calls are associated with the onset of danger.]
There are some moments (but only brief ones amid the flow of flutes) where other instruments blend in to shift the tone, such as in track 8 where chilly glissandi strings dominate briefly, in track 5 when brass take a bow and in track 11 when Elfman's trademark chorus can be heard ever-so discretely in the distance. However, these are but glimpses, and the overall mood of the movie is barely shakeable.
Considering the almost total absence of strong (i.e. memorable) thematic material (an advance from Dolores), the CD's 30 minutes is held together surprisingly well, but not to the benefit of accessibility. Elfman's reluctance to create any kind of strong emotional or timbral contrast binds the music in a straight-jacket, a weakness for the casual listener of the CD which proves a strength on film. If one approaches it as either 'clever' connoisseur or depressed flautist then satisfaction is guaranteed, but I found little to really 'like' or appreciate in this score other than the technical experimentation that benefits the film. The overall impression of bleakness in Dolores belies a subtle feel for colour and empathy which its poorer cousin Extreme Measures shares. Dolores also has a nasty taste for musical drama and has its violent releases. A Simple Plan is one long anticipatory lunge through a snowy village, and on CD it cannot fail but to fall flat on its face.
Film Rating: ***
CD Rating: *

Review #3 by the Texas Ranger

WARNING: This review may contain spoilers from the film. Those concerned with the CD Release ONLY should skip ahead to "The anti-Sommersby!"
Disturbing - To trouble emotionally or mentally; to upset tranquillity. SEE: A Simple Plan
A Simply Sadistic Score for a Simple Plan (a.k.a. - The Good)
I absolutely must express my thoughts on this scoreís relation to the film, otherwise I will not be doing the composer any justice. A Simple Plan (the Oscar worthy film about humanityís greed - as well as the suffering that results from suspicion, envy, and lust) was a very grim portrait of the apparent American Dream gone wrong. Sam Raimi (Darkman, Evil Dead II), as well as Scott B. Smith, used crows to symbolize the shallow, subversive, brutal forces of natural instincts alive and well in seemingly goodhearted Midwestern people. Elfman, who was remarkably intuitive, caught on to this symbolism, and fashioned a mean spirited score as brutal and twisted as the crows that inhabit the winter wasteland of the film.
To accomplish this, he actually eliminated the whole brass and percussion sections! Not that there is anything wrong with this; Bernard Herrmann would rearrange his orchestra often in an effort to reflect the mood of the film. In addition, Elfman must have bloated the wind sections to a gargantuan size - because the action tracks contain a mammoth amount of ferocious flutes. Finally, he somehow tweaked the pianos, banjos, guitars (and I suspect a few other things) so they all sound unbearably out of tune.
The sound this music (although I use that term very loosely) created in the film was frightening, to say the least. Elfmanís score was frigid, and lacked the warmth of his earlier rural/ethnic works (Sommersby, Black Beauty). The piano always seemed to resonate at a distance, providing an appropriately eerie, if not lonely, backdrop to the cold blooded incidents being portrayed on the screen. Indeed, every aspect of this score, despite its unbelievable technical simplicity, was aimed at destroying the listenerís psychological stability. Yet, there is a method to his madness.
Besides the distant sounds of the stilted piano, Elfman uses a whole plethora of flutes for what I feel is a direct correlation between the music and the crow imagery. The flutes more or less chirp (or to be more precise - squawk) with the sheer ferocity of a flock of disgruntled birds. The banjos and guitars (at least the ones acting as the substitute percussion) arenít really strummed, but plucked. The result is a pecking, "DOING" sound. Once again, this fits in with the savage imagery of the winged scavengers - who were seen plucking out a dead manís eye early on in the film.
These two musical aspects see the light of a winterís day through two incredibly subtle themes. The first theme (as heard in Main Title [1]) basically serves as the backdrop for all of the horrid events that befall the quiet town. The opening taps from the piano, jilted plucking of the banjo, and squawks from the flute are used time and again throughout the filmís darker sequences (especially during the numerous appearances of the crows). In addition, there are five notes lifted directly from Sommersby (track 1 [0:18]), that are played throughout this theme, and other moments during the film (perhaps Elfman was being cynical by pulling out a few notes from one of his most beautiful pieces). The second theme, which is most often associated with Jacob, is even weaker than the first in presence and orchestration. Indeed, Jacobís theme is appropriately pathetic and reflects a certain naiveté that was associated with the more morally sound, but intelligently bankrupt character. For the most part, this theme is heard through the piano, and is hauntingly touching when Elfman allows it to be. However, Jacobís theme undergoes a series of transitions that reflect the mood of the character. As a result, the theme is usually simmering with regret, fear and brooding, until it culminates at a touching farewell in Death (9) and End Credits (11).
As a film score, this unique, rather savage approach works quite well. In fact, this is arguably one of Elfmanís finest film scores since 1994ís Dolores Claiborne, and contains a countless number of downright ingenious cues that could rival Scissorhands, Claiborne, and Mission: Impossible. For instance, there was the sudden, brooding tone that accompanied Lou retrieving his shotgun (which awkwardly pierced some twelve minutes of musical silence). This was followed by a "Doing" from the banjo - heightening the audienceís groans of "Oh god, whatís going to happen next (Betrayal Part 1 [5])?" This brilliant signature was used time and again as a tragically comedic indication that something was amiss (or about to be). In another brilliantly orchestrated scene (both physically and musically), Elfman uses this technique to reflect the so-called FBI agentís realization that he has a gun pointed at him (Track 8 [3'39"]) - DOING! Equally brilliant is the use of a heartbeat during the first murder sequence, and then the subsequent flat-lining of the music. Then, as the murder is argued over later, Elfman resurrects the heartbeat through the electronic bass beat - a wonderful move. There was also the savage ferocity that accompanied Hank trying to find the right implement of destruction (all right, a gun) to use on a suspected criminal. Finally, Elfman truly shines at two key moments in the film (one of which was not included on the CD release). First, the scene that portrays the decision to try to cover up the first murder, and dump the body in a stream, contained one of the most suspenseful, panic stricken pieces since Herrmannís Psycho. Using the flutes and strings, the composer fashions an animalistic tune that reflects the brutal instinct of pure panic (as well as moral decline) that is befalling the lead character - and yet still maintaining a wintry aura as the snowmobile disappears into the landscape. This culminates in a stunning scene where the music takes precedence (when the sound effects become silent). As the snowmobile races over the bridge, be still and awe as Elfman uses only the slightest hint of synthesized choir in an effect that is disturbing as it is grotesquely surreal (was that a choir, or the audience collectively gasping in horror?). Finally, Death (9) is one of Elfmanís most restrained, minimalistic, and yet touching "send offs" in his film career. How easy it would have been to rely on so many Hollywood clichés, or the pioneering work he used in Scissorhands, the Batmans, or Sommersby This time, Elfman uses a climax that is truly dissatisfying, and, although touching, is as shallow as the Death itself - a suicide resulting from the characterís inability to cope with what he had done. Once again, Elfman scores the latter half of this scene without the aid of sound effects - letting the music (which seems to come to a resolution [a false ploy used to give the audience a sigh of relief]) take precedence once again. There are countless other ingenious moments that can be heard in the score, but I will have to stop here - as others will probably have their own comments.
The techniques that Elfman uses here are of a different breed than his post 1995, and far less stunning, comedic/action works. In Mars Attacks, and others, Elfman used the music to score the sound effects - and the result was, for the most part, mediocre. In A Simple Plan, Elfman uses the music to build suspense, and then lets the sound effects take over. Thus, before a shotgun is fired, Elfman will use a stinging build up - though, once the shot is fired, the build up ends and a musical silence results. Thankfully, this technique eliminates the need for the composer to "compete" with the sound effects (as is so often the case with most thriller films), and allows him to engulf the audience in the suspenseful nature of the story. Elfman also put a personal effort into this score, apparently tweaking and playing some his own bizarre instruments which he has collected over the years. Many of them, including the glass sounds, added a "windy," hollow feel to the music.
In essence, A Simple Plan sounds like some bizarre assignment given in an imaginary film music class - "Okay students, todayís assignment - you must write a score that lacks two key components of an orchestra, lacks any thematic presence, contains at least two instruments that are out of tune, uses an over-bloated woodwinds section, and makes use of any other additional strange instruments you like. Now get writing!" Somehow, Elfman pulled it off - and I have no doubt that this will be remembered as his quintessential score of the late nineties.
Ladies and Gentleman: The Anti-Sommersby (a.k.a. The Bad and the Ugly)
Put simply, this release is the EXACT reason why I rate a film score using three different criteria. As is so often the case, here lies a work that is a fantastic film score, but a horrible CD release. There are many reasons for this - most of which have to do with Elfmanís choice of style. While it is true that Elfman could have fashioned a stereotypical thriller score, or borrowed Carter Burwellís clever use of two simply contrasting good/bad themes (Fargo 1996), the fact remains that Elfman wrote a score that was NEVER intended to be played solo!
This disregard for the mainstream musical audience is why A Simple Plan is so unbearable to listen to. This score represents the pinnacle of Elfmanís late nineties style: track after track lacks thematic presence, contains too many ear-drum piercing noises, and consistently builds up to nowhere (in many cases, there are awkward moments of silence interjected in the score). In addition, the music too often morphs into a series of strange sounds - each more grating on the ear than the next. There is little, if no beauty that can be heard. Though, even for fans of dark music (like myself) there is little that is audible. There are some bearable tracks - including Main Title (1), The Farm (4), Stop It (7), Death (9), Burning $ (10), and End Credits (11), but as Hank Mitchell would say - "Those are too few and far between." The other tracks are all equally superb at capturing the eerie tone of the film, but require too much volume adjusting in order for it to be a pleasurable experience. Personally, I wish to avoid deafness (Iím not a big fan of it), and I feel that playing this music at full volume to anybody should be banned by the Geneva Convention, or some other world wide legal institution! This is a score so disturbing that I wonít listen to it in the dark. It borrows from such Elfman classics as Dolores Claiborne, Black Beauty, Batman Returns, and Sommersby - but mutates the material into something so wretched and unfeeling. In essence, this the anti-Sommersby: a poor, minimal score that leaves an unpleasant, if not unsatisfactory, feeling in my bones.
In addition, the amount of music included on the CD is laughable at best (although nowhere near as insulting as Elfmanís earlier "Mars Attacks" or Hornerís "Titanic"). Too many key cues from the film are missing from this CD - including the First Murder (some amazing seven minutes of music) and Hank Sneaking into the Gun Cabinet (another frighteningly savage piece). I suppose Compass III Records thought it was being gracious by including three pop/country songs. While I did enjoy the additional songs, it must be said that I buy an Elfman score to hear Elfmanís music - not a bunch of pop songs! I donít care if this is an issue of a re-use fee or Elfmanís lousy editing - it has got to stop!
A Simple Plan is a bittersweet score for me: sweet - in that itís finally a return to the composerís darker, dramatic works (Iíve never been a major fan of his comedic works); bitter - in that it is as far away from his earlier, more Herrmannesque, "big orchestra" pieces as humanly possible. Like many Elfman fans, I came in on the batplane - I was first entranced by Batman, and then Elfmanís other rich scores. Since 1995, Elfman has been distancing himself from that Herrmannesque majesty and trying to forge a more unique style of his own. Unlike many post-Batman fanatics, I applaud Elfman for doing this, and hope he has great success in the future. For me, though, this is the final straw. In the past (before 1995), I would buy any Elfman score I could find and, for the most part, be pleased with the results. For the past few years, though, I have had disappointment after disappointment - all of which culminates in this, the most simple (and ear shattering) of scores. I remember a phrase coined by another Elfman fan site concerning this score (my apologies, but I canít remember which site). In his review, he stated - "Just because I can appreciate it, doesnít mean I have to like it." Well, I REALLY appreciate A Simple Plan. . .you can guess the rest. . .
Rangerís Result: Dolores Claiborne meets Sommersby at a party hosted by Black Beauty in the TENTH LEVEL OF HELL! This score is wretched, cold, savage, disturbing, and has a tendency to make my ears bleed - which is exactly what it was intended to do. This is truly the quintessential Elfman score of the late nineties, but there is no way in Heaven, Hell, or Earth that I could honesty recommend paying the full price for the CD. Sam Raimiís film is certainly an "experience" akin to the likes of Hitchcock - and so is Elfmanís music. Anybody interested in Elfmanís career must experience this unbelievable score through at least the audio samples. Although, I recommend renting and/or buying Sam Raimiís stunning film, and see how this score shines in every sense of the word!
Notes:
  1. Was it just me, or did I hear Herrmannís Psycho strings during the fox attack?
  2. Speaking of Psycho, some of the string work for The Badge seems reminiscent of the classic score (perhaps a result of Elfman overseeing the adaptation of Herrmannís score earlier that year).
  3. Large sections of the action cues from Tracks in the Snow are direct descendants of the Noisy Cricket cue from MiB.
  4. The opening strings from Death are a direct descendant of Dolores Claiborne.
  5. Another indication of the lack of music (or lousy editing): if thereís a Betrayal Part 1, then where the hell is Betrayal Part 2!?
  6. Elfman stated that he wanted to capture a tone unique to this film - I think even the most ardent haters of this score can agree he accomplished that!
Music as heard in the film: * * * *
Music on the CD: * 1/2 + Amount of Music on the CD: * * = average of * 3/4

Review #4 by Pedestrian Wolf

After three consecutive light hearted Elfman scores, I was beginning to worry that Elfman was getting too happy for his own good. I adore his "happy" works as much as the next Elfman fanatic, but I've always felt that he's more at home when he's unleashing his musical demons onto the screen. My faith was restored when, after waiting for nearly three months, Raimi's grisly masterpiece A Simple Plan came to my town. Not only did Elfman deliver one of his most haunting scores to date, but he managed to all the musical complexities of his more recent works while still giving us a hummable main theme. Unlike his more recent scores, where the main theme is hidden under a mess of complex musical ideas, A Simple Plan, always keeps the main theme riding on the top, with the musical clutter filling the background.
The score itself consists of a sort of low key Southern ensemble (think of it as Sommersby's evil twin), a slew of heart piercing woodwinds, and a piano, so badly out of tune that it sounds as if it's the ghost of a former piano. The piano is the first thing we here in the first track ("Main Title"). Soon it's joined by a banjo and a few woodwinds. Before long, we realize that one woodwind has started steadily playing the eerie main theme. Other instruments join in, but they stay in the background as the woodwind sings the main theme. It's the perfect, walking-through-the-snowy-woods-on-a-chilly-evening music, and therefore, works beautifully in the film. When the main theme is finished, the music sort of dissolves into a less harsh, piano variation of what turns out to be Jacob's theme.
Much of the score consists of variations on the main theme (or rather, variations on the background music that the main theme rests on). The most original variation is the second track ("The Moon"). It's 57 precious seconds of nothing but woodwinds (well, OK, there are also some chimes in the background, but they're too subtle to count).
The rest of the score consists of Jacob's theme and a few horrific action tracks. The former gets its first full playing in track 4 ("The Farm"). I'm not sure why Elfman only gives that character his own theme, but if he was only going to give one character a personalized theme, Jacob (played by a very fine Billy Bob Thorton, who should have taken home the Oscar for his performance) was definitely the strongest character to score for. Jacob's theme is both tragic and sweet at the same time, perfectly defining the character. The theme is at its greatest in track 9 (Death). Without a doubt, Elfman's forte is death scenes (he even managed to turn the death of a goofy alien into a tragic vignette in Men in Black). A Simple Plan is no exception and (Warning: spoiler ahead) Jacob's suicide is probably Elfman's best death scene since Batman Returns. He spins bittersweet variations on, first the out-of-tune piano, then the woodwinds. It's one of Elfman's most emotionally potent pieces of music.
The action tracks that I mentioned way back in the last paragraph ("The Betrayal Part I" and "Tracks in the Snow") are exciting, but Elfman maintains a serious, forbidding tone. In other words, Elfman doesn't make the mistake of stepping out of tone and letting the action sequences become fun.
Also excellent, is track 10 ("Burning $"). Following Jacob's death, it really packs a wallop, hitting an emotional bull's eye on the angry satisfaction of Bill Paxton's character in destroying the money that has cost him his soul (almost as if he's getting revenge). Elfman then uses strings to underscore Bill Paxton's closing monologue. The music then seamlessly dissolves into the end credits a suite that surprisingly contains almost everything from the movie except the main theme. That isn't to say that it isn't a great suite, however. It opens with reflections on Jacob, then dives into the main titles stripped of the main theme (which, as it turns out, is even creepier). Actually, I lied, the main theme does make a brief appearance in the end credits, but it's very subtle, and it's gone before we even realize it was there.
My only complaint about the soundtrack is the length: we only get thirty minutes and we miss out on the music for a key scene where Bill Paxton's character ( why can't I remember his name?) commits his first murder. I'm not sure why they decided to add those three songs to the soundtrack. Who are they for? I mean, it's not as if blues fans who don't care about Elfman or the movie are going to buy the soundtrack for those three songs. But at any rate, the music that is there is first rate Elfman, and in my opinion, this is Elfman's best score since Mars Attacks. A great score that is many things, but certainty not simple.
Film Rating: * * * *
CD Rating: * * * *

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