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Weekly Alibi A Simple Plan

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  Sam Raimi's icy new thriller A Simple Plan is likely to draw much comparison to the Coen brothers' caustic cool hit Fargo. Both are set in the wintry climes of America's great white north. Both are slow-building thrillers about the corrupting power of greed. Both are brilliant bits of filmmaking. All in all, it ain't bad company to be lumped in with.

A Simple Plan, based on the best-selling novel by Scott B. Smith, tells the tale of three small-town pals in rural Wisconsin. One fateful New Year's Eve, Hank (Bill Paxton), his older brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob's buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble across a crashed plane in the snow-packed woods. Inside the plane is a dead body and just over $4 million in cash. Assuming the money to be loot from an untraceable drug deal, the trio start playing some heady "what if" games. In the end, they decide to hide the money until spring. If the plane is found and no mention of the money arises, they'll split the fortune three ways and escape their struggling backwater burg.

What's so brilliant about A Simple Plan, is--as the slyly ironic title says--it's all so simple. Nobody gets hurt, there's no way they can get caught and there's more than enough cash to go around. But we've all seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. We know that, before long, this money will become like a contagious disease, infecting everyone who touches it.

Bill Paxton infuses his character with just the right amount of moral confusion. Hank is a stand-up guy--a small-town fellow who got a college education, works as an accountant in the local feed store and has a lovely wife. He's just smart enough to figure out what a bad idea it is to keep all this loot, but not quite smart enough to see what's coming around the corner.

Billy Bob Thornton (in a probable Oscar perf) nails his local yokel role with frightening ease. Jacob emerges as a pitiable hard-luck half-wit who can't seem to catch a break, even with $4 million in his pocket. Thornton does some amazingly delicate work here, sculpting his character with a realistic measure of stupidity and just a dash of hard-earned wisdom. "I notice things," Jacob tells his brother with more than a little foreshadowing. People tend to dismiss Jacob as a dullard. Because of this, he functions as a sort of mute, unnoticed witness to the world around him. More than any member of this doomed trio, poor Jacob bears the moral weight of what's happening.

Lou, meanwhile, is the ringer in the group--the drunken lout you expect to screw things up royally. He does, of course, but not before each and every member of the group has his chance to make some major mistakes.

At first, Hank's wife Sarah (a disarmingly good, de-glammed Bridget Fonda) is dead set against keeping the money. Jacob and Lou are both unemployed losers--they desperately need the cash. But Hank and Sarah are both upstanding members of the community--they're comparatively well off. As soon as Sarah sees the massive pile of money spilled out on her kitchen table, though, it's like a switch flips in her head. She becomes the fourth member of this paranoid little cabal and pushes harder than anyone to keep that money at any cost. That's the tragedy of this entire film in a nutshell--that perfectly ordinary, perfectly honest people are capable of adopting some mighty slippery morals when it comes to the long green. Hell, in the same circumstances, we'd probably do the exact same thing--and mess it up just as bad.

Whereas those Coen boys used their snow-blinded landscape to create a Zen-like isolation in which no moral ground could take root, Raimi uses the chaotic climate to build an earthy wilderness in which morality is flexible, situational. Ravenous crows and chicken-thieving foxes dot the symbolic landscape of A Simple Plan, calling to mind the capricious nature of the great outdoors--in which one animal will gladly devour another if need demands. Normally, Raimi (producer of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and director of the Evil Dead trilogy) is noted for his frenetic, stylized camera movement. Here, Raimi takes a quantum leap forward in maturity, adopting a patient, more restrained style that focuses all the attention on his pitch-perfect actors.

Whereas most modern thrillers go for a pulse-pounding, shock-a-minute style, A Simple Plan opts for a quiet, foreboding sense of dread. By the end, this deceptive atmosphere is lethally laced with suspense. If you're looking for a heart-stopper, this is the best in years.

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