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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

May 24, 2023: Great American Screenplays: Affliction and A Simple Plan

[I had planned to feature this week a pre-Memorial Day series on blockbuster films. But with the ongoing and very necessary WGA strike, I’ve decided to share instead a handful of older posts which have focused on films with particularly perfect screenplays. I’d love your thoughts on these as well as your nominees for other great screenplays and writing—in any medium—for a crowd-sourced weekend post of solidarity!]

On winter’s and America’s possibiliities and limits in two dark and powerful films.

When you think about it, snow and the American Dream have a lot in common. (Don’t worry, I’m not talking about race. Not this time, anyway.) Both are full of possibility, of a sense of childlike wonder and innocence, conjuring up nostalgic connections to our families and our childhoods as well as ideals of play and community and warmth (paradoxical for snow I know but definitely true for me—snow always makes me think of hot chocolate and fires in the fireplace). Yet as we get to be adults, both also suggest much more realistic and limiting and even threatening details, of dangerous conditions and losses of power and the cold that can set in if we can’t afford to heat our home. And once we have kids of our own, the coexistence of those two levels is particularly striking—seeing their own excitement and innocence and thorough focus on the possibilities, and certainly sharing them, but also worrying that much more about whether we can get them through the drifts, drive them safely where they need to go, keep them warm.

 I might be stretching the connection to its breaking point, but the link might help explain why so many films that explore the promises and pitfalls of the American Dream seem to do so amidst a snow-covered landscape. Near the top of that list for me are two character-driven thrillers from the late 1990s: Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997) and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998). Both are based on novels—the former a work of literary fiction by the late great Russell Banks, the latter a page-turning thriller by Scott Smith—but both, to my mind, are among those rare examples of films that significantly improve upon the source material; partly they do so through amazing screenplays (Smith interestingly wrote the screenplay based on his own book, and I would argue changed it for the better in every way), but mostly through inspired and pitch-perfect casting: Affliction centers on a career-best performance from Nick Nolte, but his work is definitely equaled by James Coburn (in an Academy-Award winning turn), Sissy Spacek, Mary Beth Hurt, and Willem Dafoe; while Simple is truly an ensemble piece, with Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton both doing unbelievable work but great contributions as well from Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Chelcie Ross, and Gary Cole. And in both, again, the snowy setting—small-town New Hampshire in Affliction, small-town North Dakota in Simple, but they might as well be next door—is a central presence and character in its own right.

The multiple, interconnecting plot threads of both films are complex, rich, and intentionally suspenseful and mysterious, and I’m most definitely not going to spoil them here. But I will say that both are, at heart, stories of the dreams and weaknesses, the ideals and failures, that we inherit from our parents, and how as adults (and especially perhaps as adults struggling with the responsibilities of family and parenthood) we try to live up to and beyond the dreams and ideals but are pulled back by and ultimately risk becoming ourselves the weaknesses and failures. It is perhaps not much of a spoiler either (just look at the titles!) to note that both films, while offering their characters and audiences glimpses of possibility and hope, bring them and us to extremely bleak final images, worlds where the snow storms may have passed but where the silence and lifelessness they have left behind are all we can see and all we can imagine. And both do so, most powerfully, by bringing their protagonists back to their childhood homes, sites (in these cases) at one and the same time of those most innocent ideals and of some of the strongest influences in turning those ideals into something much darker and colder.

When it comes to wintry or especially holiday fare, these two definitely aren’t It’s a Wonderful Life, which certainly connects its own bleak middle section very fully to a world of snow and storm but which of course ends with its protagonist in the warmest and most hopeful possible place (and in a home that has become again the source of such ideals). But either could make a pretty evocative snow day double feature with that equally great film of the American Dream and its limits. Next great screenplay tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other great screenwriting you’d nominate?

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