“A Simple Plan”: An Ethics Movie

I watched the 1998 film “A Simple Plan” again last night, and as usual with movies I see several times, I noticed some details and themes that eluded me in previous viewing. This is an ethics film, and one that would support a seminar, yet virtually none of the reviews of “A Simple Plan” mention ethics at all. That is to be expected, since ethics isn’t on Hollywood’s radar or that of 99% of the participants in the film industry, including reviewers. Checking the archives, I discovered that I mentioned the movie in an ethical context three times, but never seriously examined the film itself.

“A Simple Plan,” based on a novel by the same name, stars Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton as the very different Mitchell bothers in rural Minnesota, Hank (Paxton) and Jacob (Thornton) who, along with Jacob’s friend Lou discover a crashed private plane in a snowy field. Along with the dead pilot, the wreck contains over $4 million in cash.

The simple plan of the title is the three men’s decision to take the money, hold on to it until the plane is discovered, and then divide it up afterwards if nobody is looking for the cash. Hank, the only one of the three with firing neurons, initially wants to report the crash and the cash, obviously the legal, safe and ethical course, but allows his genial but dim-witted brother and his habitually drunk friend convince him to try the “plan.”

This illustrates at least nine vital ethics lessons right up front:

1. When an ethics alarms goes off, don’t ignore it, much as you may want to.

2. Don’t let people without ethics alarms talk you into thinking your alarms aren’t valid.

3. When you hear rationalizations being employed to counter ethical reasoning, particularly when they are coming out of your own mouth, be prepared to reject them.

4. Beware of non-ethical considerations, especially money.

5. In any ethics decision-making situation, consider the worst case scenario, and don’t ever assume a best case scenario.

6. Life competence note A: Never make a complex and risky plan that depends on participants significantly dumber than you are.

7. If confidentiality is essential to the success of a project or plan, the project or plan is too dangerous to attempt, because human beings are generally terrible at it. This is why most conspiracies are discovered. In the movie, Paxton breaks the secrecy pact by telling his wife (Bridget Fonda) about the money, and her greed, influence and devious nature leads to more bad decisions and escalating chaos.

8. Life competence note B: Literary and popular culture familiarity is invaluable in making responsible life decisions. How many movie and TV plots involve good, normal people finding large amounts of money? What kind of people inevitably come looking for such windfalls? These three characters, and Fonda, apparently never saw such a movie in their lives.

9. Telling lies is unethical, but a non-ethical consideration is that it’s very difficult to lie well, and the more complicated a false narrative is, the more likely it is to be discovered. Or, as William Shakespeare wrote, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” I doubt these bozos ever read a Shakespeare play in their lives, though Hank (Paxton) is a college grad.

By the completion of the film, we have an even ten: As one lie and bad choice leads to another, the additional ethics lesson that shines through is that loyalty is the most dangerous ethical instinct of all.

In the end (don’t read this if you don’t want to know), Paxton burns the money after discovering that he can’t spend it without risking being caught. Six people are dead, including his brother. His marriage is permanently scarred; he is tortured by guilt.

And all because he didn’t heed that first ethics alarm.

12 thoughts on ““A Simple Plan”: An Ethics Movie

  1. It shouldn’t, but it always surprises me when seemingly rational people -even characters in a story- decide to try and keep a sketchy windfall of illicit cash and are actually surprised when their plans go horribly awry. It is such an oft-repeated theme that you might think writers would have retired it by now as straining credulity past the point of believability.

    Looking at a pile of found drug money might foster fleeting dreams of all the good I could do with the cash, but never to the point that I would ever seriously think of keeping it. As Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss said in “No Country for Old Men,” “At what point would you stop looking for your two million dollars?” Unintended consequences of our decisions are ubiquitous, and more so for unethical decisions, in my experience. My father used to remark, “Nothing good will come of that!” when he learned of someone in his circle taking some ill-advised course of action. Indeed.

    • Given our predilection towards sinful behavior as it is, a massive windfall of cash must be considered one of those extreme temptations where one’s true mettle is revealed. Most of us want to believe that we are relatively virtuous (and even a few of us believe we’re objectively virtuous!), but most of us have never been sorely tempted. Sadly, most of us probably don’t prepare ourselves for how to react when we are sorely tempted. Worse, we might find that some vice has been lurking in the shadows. All the time, we keep telling ourselves it isn’t what it is, it isn’t so bad, others are so much worse with their vices, we have it under control. But then, faced with this unexpected temptation, we find out we’ve only been lying to ourselves. The desire is too great to overcome, and we succumb to the temptation.

        • Whether I agree with your feeling comes down to the scenario. Someone is going to miss $4 million, and could potentially have the resources to hunt down whoever took the money. But if you were reasonably convinced that you wouldn’t get caught (and perception of likelihood of punishment plays into any deviant behavior), and that you could slowly make use of this windfall without arousing suspicion, I think most people would feel a stronger temptation towards the $4 million. However, that is largely because of the scenario I’ve set up. Still, just coming across $4 million dollars would probably stun most people, and in that moment of shock is where tempting thoughts can start to creep in. In other words, I think people can be surprisingly stupid whenever large sums of money are unexpectedly at play.

  2. I truly believe ( know) that very few to no one watches what is produced by the entertainment industry watch with an ethical eye. [ot as Scripture says, “they have eyes but do not see…” I am now watching a British series entitled “SPLIT” it takes place in a large London Family Law firm. Everyone has, is, or probably will be, as the series continues, screwing each other and one of their clients. Solicitors in bed with barristers, barristers in bed with clients, Threats to out each other, the list seems endless. In the past, I have watched “Billions,” “Suits” and other shows centered on the legal profession. I have, thus, concluded that there is no one in the legal profession possesses neither an ethics alarm nor a moral compass.
    Question: Was this ethical nadir present in “Perry Mason?”

  3. Jack, after your reference to Chesty Morgan, reading about a pair of actors taking on the parts of the Mitchell Brothers, I didn’t initially expect that the Mitchell brothers in this film were a fictional family.

  4. … Or, as William Shakespeare wrote, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice [sic] to deceive.” …

    Or it could have been Sir Walter Scott, in Marmion. P.G.Wodehouse often used that line, to humorous effect.

      • Not so. I realised that many years ago, after reading his In Alcala. I kept waiting for the humour, but it turned out that he was writing a serious work, so it never came.

        • But the whole concept of PG being serious was a joke. This was, in essence, his defense for giving those broadcasts from Germany after he had been captured in WWII. My father, a Wodehouse-lover, accepted it completely.

          • If you have the chance to read that, or even a good review of it if you don’t have the time, you will find that it was serious. That reading might also show you the work’s date of writing, which should clarify that it was written before Wodehouse was typecast as a comic writer, and before he found that to be a comfortable home.

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