Ambition and ideology: intertextual clues to A Simple Plan's view of the American dream.
Obviously, plot requires that Hank's status as a "happy" man be disturbed if a story is to emerge. Screenwriter Scott Smith, adapting his own first novel (A Simple Plan 1993), not only disturbs his protagonist's status quo, but, in the act of adaptation, also alters his original conception of both characters and plot. One consequence of the changes he makes from novel to film is the underscoring of the story's deep intertextual roots. Although Richard Schickel links the film to Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and a number of reviewers make note of its similarities to the Coen brothers' Fargo, as well as to such classic films as John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1), it is through even deeper intertextual roots that Smith and Raimi reveal their complicated ideological statement regarding the state of the American dream at the end of the twentieth century.
Stuart Klawans notes "something ... chillingly peculiar to late nineties America" in A Simple Plan, and Richard Rayner calls its "fiercely moral investigation of the Puritan ethic.... a perfect story for the late-Clinton era." Such readings position this film as a text almost necessitated by the cultural climate of its era. Its use of intertextuality reveals that connection to its era in a different way: the postmodern narrative's fondness for employing earlier texts as building blocks in its construction. Julia Kristeva defines intertextuality as "the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another, accompanied by a new articulation of the enunciative and denotative positions" (15). In A Simple Plan, Smith and Raimi transpose three specific sign systems, or texts, central to the western canon: Shakespeare's Macbeth, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Through their complicated interweaving of these language "systems," the filmmakers achieve a new articulation of the relationship between the American dream and ambition, between Christian morality and capitalistic expectations. Within the intersections of these texts, they discover a way to render for a broad audience the tragic consequences of our culture's mixed messages and our apparently inevitable willingness to negotiate the murky moral territory that is our fate. Smith and Raimi underscore the conclusion that Nick Carraway reaches at the end of The Great Gatsby, yet another canonical text central to this film: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" (189).
The broadness of Kristeva's definition, considered seminal, suggests one problem that confronts the critic hoping to build an argument on the concept of intertextuality. At one level the most basic of literary concepts, genre, suggests connections among texts. Walter Addiego is perhaps thinking of intertextuality in such terms when he writes that "A Simple Plan is sure to kick-start your movie memory: indeed, it depends for full effect on viewer familiarity with a long line of noir and heist films about doomed individuals and ill-gotten gains." Roger Ebert, too, uses classical notions of genre to place the film when he praises "its ability to involve the audience almost breathlessly in a story of mounting tragedy." But I want to use a somewhat more precise conception of intertextuality articulated by David Cowart in his book Literary Symbiosis: The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing. Cowart, who sees such symbiosis as "a specifically postmodern phenomenon" (3), suggests that a study of what he terms "'symbiotic' attachments, especially as they involve formal or thematic revision, will reveal something about how contemporary writers engage in a kind of 'epistemic dialogue' with the past, meanwhile forcing readers into a recognition of the historical or diachronic differences between the voice of one literary age and that of another" (1).
The most transparent of the three symbiotic relationships is that between A Simple Plan and Macbeth. Shakespeare's is a story of unbridled ambition that transforms his protagonist from heroic citizen to murderous maniac, and for centuries readers/ viewers and critics alike have commented on the role of Macbeth's wife in the pattern and the pace of his tragic fall. Linking Sarah Mitchell, the pregnant librarian, to Lady Macbeth is a stretch on some levels. Sarah is solidly middle class, solidly American. She is first seen in the film partially naked, just out of her bath, with her robe positioned so as to emphasize her eight-months-plus distended belly. The royal Lady Macbeth is, of course, neither American nor maternal. Yet reviewers could not resist the parallel in their analysis of Sarah's character. Schickel calls her "this caper's Lady Macbeth." Richard Rayner refers to Hank's spouse as "the sugar-sweet life partner who morphs into Lady Macbeth," and Peter Travers identifies the character, played by Bridget Fonda, as "a scarily domesticated Lady Macbeth."
Cowart, however, suggests that pointing out such parallels is not enough. The reader/viewer who wants to use literary symbiosis as a tool of critical understanding must look "with an eye to seeing how 'a text B' [A Simple Plan in this case] means in relation to the 'prior text A' [here Macbeth]" (3). Thus, that Sarah conceives and facilitates actions at every crucial stage of her husband's interaction with the 4.4 million dollars he, his brother, and his brother's buddy find in a crashed airplane and that her participation in his ultimate downfall echoes Lady Macbeth's participation in her husband's ascension to the throne of Scotland and his eventual fall from that elevated state achieve transformative significance only if we, as viewers, can use those parallels to determine how Smith and Raimi's story "means" in relation to Macbeth. A number of the film's reviewers point to a speech Fonda makes late in the film as her character's single most significant contribution to the plot and as the most crucial moment in terms of the audience's understanding of and identification with her character. Perhaps Charles Taylor's take on this scene, in which Sarah makes clear to Hank her sense of what their lives will be like if they don't do whatever they must to keep the money, is the most helpful in allowing us to understand the symbiotic relationship that Cowart defines. Taylor writes that Sarah's speech makes clear that
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 ... is how reasonable her expectations are, and how reasonable those expectations make her proposed solutions sound.
A Simple Plan makes Lady Macbeth us, transforms the queen, so distant in rank and historical place, into a middle-class every-woman of the late twentieth century. Through that transformation, the film obviously achieves a degree of realism that we cannot associate with Macbeth (though it seems unfair to impose an aesthetic concept such as realism on a text that so far predates the concept and that makes no pretense to "realism" in a more general way in relation to its own contemporaneous audience). While the echoes of the prior text cue the informed viewer, the one who "gets" the connection, to the inevitable outcome of the plot, the transformation of the female protagonist simultaneously forces us to rethink the character in terms of her equally clear connections to our own lives and causes us to be more sympathetic to her than we would be to Lady Macbeth. Thus, the film implicates us in the same moral murkiness that is the fate of its characters, denying us the comfort, as Ebert notes, of "[standing] outside the story and feeling superior to it."
Further, by making Sarah Mitchell a productive female, one who actually gives birth to Hank's "heir" during the course of their quest for "greatness," the film eliminates one of the psychological explanations for Lady Macbeth's ambitions, which must, of course, be realized through her husband. Sarah isn't asking Hank to commit crimes out of frustration generated by infertility; in fact, she does the opposite, asking him to commit crimes so that they might give their child the best possible American life. This transformation of the female character again places Sarah firmly within the boundaries of "acceptable" American thinking regarding one's offspring: they are entitled to a "better" life, to more advantages and more "stuff" than their parents have enjoyed. Her goals, for herself and her family, are our goals.
In his stage directions at the beginning of Act I of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller writes, "An air of dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality" (1663). Although the literal setting is what Miller terms "the Salesman's house" (1663), metaphorically that house is America itself. The connection of dream and reality at the heart of Miller's conception of the American myth resonates loudly in the life of Hank Mitchell. Like his wife and like Miller's protagonist Willy Loman, Hank is solidly American, solidly middle class. By making Sarah Mitchell a Lady Macbeth figure rather than a Linda Loman, Smith and Raimi speak to a shift in American culture during the half-century between Miller's text (1949) and A Simple Plan. Linda Loman is, according to the stage directions, a woman who "more than loves [her husband], she admires him ... [and shares his] longings ... but lacks the temperament to utter [them] and follow [them] to their end" (1664). Such a wife would be implausible in the world of A Simple Plan. The transformed marriage, consummated in the feminist era, produces, we might say, a partnership between Willy Loman and Lady Macbeth, a pairing that prefigures the specific ways in which Hank is a reconsideration of Willy.
Schickel calls Hank Mitchell "a weak, inexplicably damaged fellow," but Taylor reads him somewhat more generously: "As Hank, [Paxton's] playing the good American who believes that hard work and honesty are what will reward him and his pregnant wife." When they find the money, Lou, best friend of Hank's brother, exclaims, "It's the American dream in a goddamned gym bag." Hank replies, "You work for the American dream. You don't steal it." Ebert sees Hank as a man living according to this "untested theory," which is, of course, the theory on which the American ethic is built. That theory tells us to work for what we desire rather than to steal it. But rarely are we presented with such a ready shortcut, a path that Lou describes as "even better." The plot of A Simple Plan, then, is, at least in part, designed to test the untested, to determine how true and truly American the theory is.
Describing the way in which his life fails to meet his expectations and clearly placing the blame for that gap on his culture, Willy Loman notes "The way they boxed us in here" (1666) and complains that "The competition is maddening!" (1667). His son Biff shares his sense that somehow the culture has prevented his achieving what, by rights, he should. Biff says, "it's a measly manner of existence.... always to have to get ahead of the next fella.... still--that's how you build a future" (1669). When Biff begins to steal in order to close the gap between the dream and his reality, his mother is shocked because, as she puts it, "I never in my life told him anything but decent things" (1680).
Like Biff Loman, Hank Mitchell is the son onto whom a failed and ultimately suicidal father projects his desires, which are, in essence, the American dream. Hank, like Biff, is to attain the happiness that eludes his father. But Hank is also, as a college-educated man of the late twentieth century, presumably a son of both Biff and Willy Loman in another way. Hank is a son of the America that knows Arthur Miller's story. At the end of Miller's tragedy of the "common" man (2), Biff says to his father, "Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" (1729), a question that Miller is asking America. A Simple Plan suggests that our collective answer has been no more productive than Willy Loman's, which is suicide. Hank Mitchell, who lives something of the life that the Lomans aspired to, what with his salaried position and the genuine affection and respect that the community has for him, feels compelled to pursue those elements of the dream that have, thus far, escaped him. Taylor summarizes Hank's temptation this way: "... [the] characters are presented with an awful chance at something better than their dead-end, small-town jobs, their cradle-to-grave money worries," and he argues that this set of circumstances creates within the viewer a "feeling of inexorability" and a "horrified empathy." If we have read the prior text, Salesman, we understand the inevitable outcome of the failure to discard the phony dream, but because we, like Hank and Sarah and the others, cannot accept the limited nature of our own share of the dream, we empathize with their "wrong" decision, the (mis)reading of Miller's play.
Christian critics can easily place this film into a biblical paradigm. Michael Elliott, for example, says, "Spiritually, it is easy to see that everything going wrong in these characters' lives can be traced back to the moment they gave in to the temptation of keeping money that didn't belong to them," but such a simplistic reading makes the Bible the primary, or only significant, prior text for the narrative and risks turning the characters into the "tedious, witless company" that Schickel sees. The story then becomes nothing beyond what Shawn Levy calls "watching doom spell itself out with geologic certainty," a scientific rather than a theological metaphor, but another that undercuts the story's complexity. Also pursuing a scientific logic, Edward Guthmann argues that "Raimi implies [that] men are driven by natural forces, bound to an atavistic impulse that tears against the social codes we're taught to believe in." Here we begin to see another way in which the transformation of literary symbiosis can help readers/viewers to a deeper sense of how a text means.
The impulse driving Hank Mitchell, his wife, and his other companions in crime may be "natural," but its naturalness is more clearly attributable to the social code of capitalism than to biological forces, more nearly approximates a weaving into rather than a tearing of the social fabric of American life in the late twentieth century. As economist Robert J. Samuelson notes,
We are a nation of ambitious people, and yet ambition is a quality that is hard to praise and easy to deplore. It's a great engine of American creativity, but it also can be an unrelenting oppressor, which robs us of time and peace of mind. Especially in highly prosperous periods--periods like the present--it becomes fashionable to question whether ambition has gotten out of hand and is driving us to excesses of striving and craving that are self-destructive. (57)
Samuelson goes on to say, as Arthur Miller said fifty years before in a different kind of discourse, that "Frustration is preordained" (57), and he ties that frustration directly to the American conception of democracy: "Because everyone can be someone, the competition to rise above the crowd is unrelenting and rather ruthless" (57).
Thus, Hank and Sarah Mitchell, who live a perfectly acceptable life except for the social reality of ambition that Samuelson describes, become the unthinkable: they become murderers as a consequence of ambition. If we read Salesman as Miller's indictment of a phony dream that kills Willy Loman, we learn from Smith and Raimi that the same phony dream survives the Lomans, in fact, thrives post-Loman, and morphs into something that makes the common man not the "murdered," but the murderer. Ironically, of course, this makes the common man both, for as he murders others, he also murders his own chance for happiness, which is, as Hank Mitchell's father teaches him, the goal of the American dream.
In the character of Jacob Mitchell, Hank's brother, played by Billy Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan provides another significant intertextual link, to Of Mice and Men. In Smith's novel, Jacob dies during the shoot-out at his friend Lou's house. Hank shoots him in the chest when he realizes that Jacob is incapable of sticking with their false version of the death and mayhem they have created during this scene. The screenplay, however, allows Jacob to survive that scene and to live until the film's closing shoot-out at the site of the downed plane. There he begs his brother to kill him and make his death appear the act of the "bad guy," a kidnapper and murderer who is the "real" owner of the 4.4 million dollars (ransom paid in the kidnapping) and who has led the brothers and the town sheriff to the isolated locale by pretending to be an FBI man. Hank has already killed this true villain, his evilness affirmed by his having murdered the sheriff in cold blood, just as Hank had predicted he would. All of Hank's murders, on the other hand, have been "spontaneous" acts, "necessitated" by circumstances beyond his control. In fact, the film text (as opposed to the novel) allows all except the first (the strangulation of an aged neighbor on a snowmobile) to be read as self-defense.
Like his literary forebears from Steinbeck's novel, Jacob dreams a simple version of American happiness--he wants to use his share of the found money to regain the family farm, lost in the effort to settle their father's massive debt. Early in the novel, both Jacob and Hank understand that their parents probably committed suicide in a car crash to allow for payment of insurance money. In the film Jacob must explain this fact to his younger, presumably smarter brother. This shift from novel to film is one of several ways that Smith employs to demonstrate that Jacob is not merely Steinbeck's Lenny redux. Although Jacob is less educated than his brother and clearly suffers from an almost paralyzing shyness and social ineptness--he admits to Hank at one point that he has never kissed a girl, he is not simple-minded in the way that Lenny is. In fact, as Smith shifts his death from mid-narrative to the end and sets up Hank's shooting his brother as the only alternative to Jacob's committing suicide, the viewer comes to understand precisely the way that A Simple Plan reinterprets Steinbeck's novel.
For George and Lenny, who use the dream of a little farm with rabbits to fuel their bleak lives, the economic system is constructed so that they cannot attain even their scaled-back version of American happiness. Even when they make their pact with Cookie and begin to sense that they might be able to buy a small farm, the reader/viewer knows that they will not succeed because of Steinbeck's tone of inevitable tragedy. But Lenny's simplemindedness protects him from such ironic knowledge of the world and his place in it. After Lenny kills Curly's wife and George realizes that he must kill him, George constructs Lenny's death scene so that his last thoughts are of the farm and the rabbits. Lenny dies with the dream intact, his naive faith unshattered.
Jacob, on the other hand, understands all too clearly that the American dream provides no place for him. As Taylor says, "Jacob has a painful awareness of his limitations and a rock-solid knowledge of who he is." He, in fact, must explain his recognition to Hank in terms persuasive enough to guarantee that his brother will grant his final wish and shoot him.
In dealing with literary symbiosis, Cowart suggests that an "important consideration ... would seem to lie in whether or not the 'guest' invites a comparison with the 'host" and whether it "[manages] to cast a new light on the original" (9). In staging Hank's shooting of his brother, Raimi issues a direct invitation to compare A Simple Plan to Gary Sinise's extremely faithful 1992 adaptation of Steinbeck's novel. Raimi positions his actors to create a direct visual echo of Sinise's staging of George's shooting of Lenny. In addition, Raimi's post-Cold War text asks us to reinterpret the subtextual Marxist ideology of Steinbeck's story. Cowart notes that "among the texts presenting themselves as candidates for symbiosis one sees many that seem strongly at odds, philosophically or ideologically, with the present" (10). By highlighting the exponential increase in the amount necessary to attain happiness, from several hundred dollars during the 1930s to several million in the 1990s, and by underscoring the ultimate futility of pursuing that dream for "ordinary" citizens and those citizens' awareness of that futility as well as their inability to resist making the effort, Smith and Raimi manage to demonstrate that Steinbeck's story, like Miller's and Shakespeare's, failed to transform us in the ways that they might have. (3)
Whether the "simple" plan that Hank Mitchell devises for their keeping the millions they find in the plane fails because of "infighting" among the parties involved--a psychological interpretation--or because of pressures from "some outside agency"--a sociological explanation--is immaterial to reviewer Shawn Levy. But to the filmmakers that distinction is more than material-it is the point of the film's reinterpretation of these canonical works. A Simple Plan makes a strong case for the sociological explanation: the outside agent that causes these "good" people to do "bad" things is, in mythic language, the American dream; in economic language, the capitalism that can thrive only in the atmosphere of ambition that Samuelson describes.
Before this movie, Raimi was known primarily as a director of horror films filled with high-tech violence. A Simple Plan is not without violence, but here Raimi treats violence, according to Taylor, "as a horrifically plausible betrayal of [the] characters' humanity, rather than as a blase confirmation of what scum they are."
Linda Loman explains to her son that "A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man" (1688), an assessment that Miller argues at more length in his essay "Tragedy and the Common Man." The Mitchell brothers and their friend Lou are small, common men, but A Simple Plan demonstrates that their exhaustion with their American lives is every bit as great as that experienced by Macbeth or Lear or any other "great" man of canonical tragedy. Beyond this reiteration of Miller's argument for middle-class tragedy, however, this film, through its symbiotic relationships, forces its viewers into what Cowan calls "a more active, palpable, and formalized act of reading" (20). I want to extend Cowart's idea that "the textual simulacra produced by [symbiotic] authors allow them to engage in artful dialogue with the aesthetic and philosophical assumptions of their precursors" (12) by suggesting that such symbiosis also creates an artful dialogue within readers/viewers, forcing us to re-engage our aesthetic and philosophical assumptions about the precursor texts that these authors use.
A Simple Plan does not so much revise, parody, or subvert its host texts, although those relationships are quite common to symbiosis, as it reiterates and intensifies the essences of those texts that we, as readers / viewers, have missed or resisted in ways that perpetuate the very behaviors, the exact philosophies and assumptions, that the originals cautioned against. Loy D. Martin expresses the function of symbiotic literature somewhat more imaginatively: "The poet is the well-instructed missionary of the language which constitutes both his own subjectivity and that of his culture. And the site of his mission is the literary past" (qtd. in Cowart 25). By engaging in their symbiotic relationship with these texts, Smith and Raimi are then missionaries who resist closure, a common trait of symbiots (Cowart 24). They invite us back into the literary past and ask us to re-read, carefully this time. And so we, and they, beat on, boats against the current ... seeking a way to narrow the gap between the reality and the dream of America.
(1) See, for example, Levy and Addiego.
(2) In his famous essay "Tragedy and the Common Man," Miller argues that tragedy's underlying struggle is always "that of the individual attempting to gain his 'rightful' position in his society" (1248), a quest that is not, in Miller's view, limited to those in elevated positions or who feel themselves deserving of elevation in the classical sense of being "high born" or royal. Miller believes that a tragic hero displays an "inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status" (1248). Clearly, this conception of tragedy fits perfectly with the mindset that the characters of A Simple Plan act upon, a mindset inevitable within the context of the American dream, according to the film's ideology.
(3) In her obituary for Miller at the time of his death in February 2005, Marilyn Berger, writing in the New York Times, affirms the playwright's commitment to literature's role as an agent for social change. She say, "He ... saw playwriting as a way to change America, and, as he put it, 'that means grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck.'" That readers/viewers continue to miss such direct, overt messages regarding social injustice becomes, then, part of the motivation for Smith and Raimi's symbiotic reinterpretation of their precursor texts. Berger quotes Broadway producer Robert Whitehead, a frequent Miller collaborator, who saw a "rabbinical righteousness" in the author of Salesman. Whitehead says, "In his work, there is almost a conscious need to be a light onto the world.... He spent his life seeking answers to what he saw around him as a world of injustice." Such assessments suggest that one part of A Simple Plan's statement then is somehow to italicize, boldface, and otherwise highlight the literary social commentary we have, as a cultural, continued to misread.
Addiego, Walter. Rev. of A Simple Plan. San Francisco Examiner. 11 Dec. 1998. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-in/ article.cgi?file=/examiner/archive/ 1998/12/11/WEEKENDI1410.dtl>. 19 Jan. 2000.
Berger, Marilyn. "Arthur Miller, Legendary American Playwright, Is Dead." New York Times. 11 Feb. 2005. <http:// www.nytimes.com/2005/02/11/theater/11cnd-miller.html>. 11 Feb. 2005.
Cowart, David. Literary Symbiosis: The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.
Ebert, Roger. Rev. of A Simple Plan. Chicago Sun-Times. 19 Jan. 2000. <http:// www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1998/12/121104.html>.
Elliott, Michael. Rev. of A Simple Plan. The Christian Critic. 21 Jan. 2000. <http: www.christiancritic.com/movies/ simpplan.htm>.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribners, 1992.
Guthmann, Edward. Rev. of A Simple Plan. San Francisco Chronicle. 21 Jan. 2000. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-binl article. cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/ 1998/12/11/DD39158.DTL>.
Klawans, Stuart. Rev. of A Simple Plan. Nation. 11-18 Jan. 1998. GALILEO. Internet.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire and Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora and others. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
Levy, Shawn. Rev. of A Simple Plan. Portland Oregonian. 10 Dec. 1998. 22 Jan. 2000. <http://www.oregonlive.com/ent/ movies/9812/mv981211simple.html>.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 1949. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds. Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1991. 1663-1733.
--. "Tragedy and the Common Man." The Modern Theatre. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. New York: Macmillan, 1964. 1248-50.
Of Mice and Men. Dir. Gary Sinise. Perf Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, and Ray Walston. MGM, 1992.
Rayner, Richard. "Easy Money." Rev. of A Simple Plan. Harper Bazaar. Dec. 1998. GALILEO. Internet.
Samuelson, Robert. "Ambition and Its Enemies." Newsweek 23 Aug. 1999: 57.
Schickel, Richard. "Cold Comfort." Rev. of A Simple Plan. Time 14 Dec. 1998. 22 Jan. 2000. <http://www.pathfrnder.com/ time/magazine/I 998/domI98 1214/ the_arts/cinema>.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. Bedford Shakespeare Series. Ed. William C. Carroll. New York: Bedford, 1999.
A Simple Plan. Dir. Sam Raimi. Perf. Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, and Billy Bob Thornton. Paramount, 1998.
Smith, Scott. A Simple Plan. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. 1937. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Taylor, Charles. Rev. of A Simple Plan. 19 Jan. 2000. <http://www.salon.com/ent/ movies/reviews/ 1998/12/1lreviewb. html?CP=SAL&DN==1 10>.
Travers, Peter. "A Very Good Thing: A Simple Plan." Rev. of A Simple Plan. Rolling Stone 10 Dec. 1998. GALILEO. Internet.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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