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Nashville Scene Blood Simple

Unforgiving suspense novel translates well to screen

By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  Scott Smith's grim suspense novel A Simple Plan may be the most deftly plotted thriller I've ever read, a trip-wired package that poses an Ethics 101 puzzler--if you find a bag of money in the forest, who has to know?--in terms worthy of Edgar Allen Poe. Given the soundness of the source material, the film version, directed by Sam Raimi from Smith's own script, works like gangbusters just by showing up.

Here Bill Paxton plays the nice, conservative, dough-strapped family man who finds the snow-covered wreckage of a plane containing $4.5 million in cash. With his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and his brother's lunkhead buddy (Brent Briscoe) in tow, he hits upon a simple plan to keep the cash. But money is never simple. In Smith's cunning morality play, you're suckered into siding with the protagonist, who starts out doing the right thing, then the only thing, then some very bad things. That each new twist makes keen psychological sense only adds to the infernal tension.

The wacky exuberance of director Raimi's Evil Dead movies is nowhere in evidence, but the spare, pitiless style he displays here is ideally suited to the material. His filmmaking has the lean tautness you associate with killer B-movies: no wasted shots, just forward motion--not to mention the most expressive use of icy devastation since Fargo. Against all that blank white snow, every color leaves a stain like sin.

Paxton uses his deceptive average-Joe looks to great effect in a subtly demanding role, but Billy Bob Thornton's homely, heartrending decency as Jacob gives this clever chiller real weight--nobody suggests more depth of feeling playing inarticulate characters. A Simple Plan views its characters' greed and folly with the same cold eyes as the ravens that hover over the crash site, waiting to feed on the remains.

--Jim Ridley

Monster vision

British-born director James Whale had a respectable Hollywood career in the '20s and '30s, helming such high-profile features as Show Boat and The Man in the Iron Mask. Whale's reputation endures, however, due to a handful of classic horror pictures--specifically Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein -- that combined morbidity and comedy with heart-tugging pathos and high camp. The new film Gods & Monsters attempts to understand the complicated forces at work in creation, and the inspiration behind Whale's indelible image of Mary Shelley's tragic, misunderstood creature.

Writer-director Bill Condon adapts Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein, a fictionalized account of Whale's final days. Ian McKellen (in a career-defining performance) plays Whale, living alone in a posh Beverly Hills estate, recovering from a stroke that has left his brain unprotected from a torrent of memories, and worrying his German maid (Lynn Redgrave) with his "decadent" lifestyle. Brendan Fraser plays Whale's gardener Clay, whom Whale invites to model for some sketches. The director uses the gardener as a sounding board for his life story, and as an object for his benign lust. The gardener covets the director's affluence but is alternately repelled and fascinated by his love life--Whale is the first homosexual Clay has ever met.

Gods & Monsters has the structure of tragedy, but it fails to impress us with any real weight: Whale's life simply wasn't grand enough--or, ultimately, pathetic enough. But Condon's film is remarkable in more subtle ways, especially in the way it shows how an artist's life bleeds into his work, sometimes literally. Whale's memories of growing up poor but putting on airs, of fighting in World War I, and of the awkwardness he felt as a gay man looking for companionship all play out in the gruesome flailings of Frankenstein's monster.

But Whale's most famous films touch us not because they speak to Whale's life, but to all of ours. Condon fills his film with mirrors--a way of showing us, as well as his characters, how we really appear, beyond the twisted images in our own minds.

--Noel Murray

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