The Austin Chronicle

A Simple Plan

Rated R, 123 min. Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Chelcie Ross, Becky Ann Baker, Gary Cole, Brent Briscoe, Bridget Fonda, Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 11, 1998

“Simple” is a misnomer of epic proportions. In horror stylist Sam Raimi's first mainstream thriller, everything is gratingly complex: the tangled skein of emotions that make the backbiting in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre look downright antiquated, Bill Paxton's unstoppable descent into the world of the felonious, and Billy Bob Thornton's heart-and-soul portrayal of the sly idiot brother. It ain't brain surgery, but oh my goodness, it certainly isn't simple. Paxton plays rural Minnesota family man Hank, an upright citizen patiently waiting for his day to take over management at the local feed store. His loving wife Sarah (Fonda) sports a convex tummy and worries about the state of their financial affairs. Hank's brother Jacob (Thornton), on the other hand, is a few planks shy of an outhouse and longs only to renovate the family farmhouse and take up where mom and pop left off, much to Hank's consternation; he knows the hideous toil it takes to manage the modern American farm, and he knows just as well there's no way brother Jacob is fit to tackle that task. While out in the woods one snowy afternoon, this placid, middle-American setup comes to a screeching halt when Hank, Jacob, and Jacob's hickoid friend Lou (Briscoe) accidentally stumble across a downed Cessna with $4.4 million and a dead pilot. Lou and Jacob vociferously argue that the money is theirs by the ancient right of finders keepers, however Hank is anxious to turn over the Benjamin-crammed duffel bag to the authorities and takes the moral high road, at least for the minute. In the end, it's decided that Hank, and only Hank, will hold the money until he feels it's safe to split it up; then the three will go their separate ways, leave town, and never, presumably, be seen again. With as juicy a setup as this (courtesy of scenarist Scott B. Smith, who adapted the screenplay from his bestselling novel of the same name), the possibilities are endless, but from the moment you lay eyes on the bitter, sterile Minnesotan tundra that acts as the film's unofficial fourth conspirator, it's obvious the direction in which events are going to go. Fear, paranoia, and plain old greed quickly factor their way into the trio's plans, aided and abetted by Hank's wife Sarah, who despite (or maybe because of) that bun in the proverbial oven is no creampuff. Regardless, she's immediately on Hank's case to keep a close rein on the cash, as well as advising him to “put a little of it back” in the plane in an attempt to cover their tracks. A Simple Plan takes so many twists and turns (none of which engender confidence in the human race, I might add) that revealing any more here would be a sin. Suffice to say that Raimi has crafted a nasty, countrified gem of a psychological thriller, and he's done it with none of his usual gimmicky shrieks or stylistic flourishes. A Simple Plan is almost painfully reserved at times, while at others it flares into a maelstrom of jaw-dropping, stomach-clenching anxiety. It's not perfect -- Thornton's slack-jawed yokel Jacob is played a bit wide of the mark and Fonda continues to irk in some indefinable way -- but it's a revelation for longtime Raimi fans. And it's a hell of a ride too, for both Raimi fans and newcomers alike.

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