A simple plan

Money. It’s as intoxicating as power and can be just as dangerous in the wrong hands. It makes the world go round. It makes people do strange things. People will go to the ends of the earth for it, and in desperation, some people would kill for it.


Money is both a seductress and a siren. It lures you with the promise of financial stability and happiness, and in the right hands, can bring both. In the wrong hands, it can bring about ruin and despair. It’s like that proverbial toss of the coin. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

That’s what happens to three friends in “A Simple Plan,” an intensely involving thriller from director Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”). Set against a bleak winter backdrop in Minnesota, “A Simple Plan” is like a great high. It slowly sneaks up on you until it nails you at the end.

It’s a potent combination of superb acting, intelligent writing and taut direction. The screenplay by Scott B. Smith, based on his novel, is a ticking clock of intensity. With every click of the second hand the tension grows until it’s almost unbearable. By the time Smith’s morality tale of greed and trust reaches its conclusion, you’re grateful for the release.

Bill Paxton is superb as Hank Mitchell, a loving husband with a very pregnant wife and a job down at the local feed mill. Hank may not be rich when it comes to money, but he’s rich in so many other ways.

Hank abides by his father’s secret to happiness: “A wife he loves, a decent job and friends and neighbors that like and respect him.” As Hank walks through the streets of his little snow covered Norman Rockwell town, he stops and greets everyone he meets.

It’s that kind of town, and Hank is that kind of guy. He likes putting in a full days work for a full days pay, even if it means covering for his slow brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton). He’s the kind of guy that Frank Capra would make a movie about.

It’s amazing how a small chain of events can change a man’s life forever, yet that’s what happens when Hank, Jacob and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble across a plane crash in the middle of nowhere. Inside the plane, Hank discovers a duffle bag with $4.4 million in it.

Believing that the plane and the money belonged to drug smugglers, the three men concoct a plan to take the money. It’s “A Simple Plan.” They’ll sit on the money until the Spring thaw and the plane is discovered. If no one mentions the money, the trio split it up and head out of town.

They agree to keep the money a secret, but it isn’t long before Hank is sharing the good news with his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda). Her idealism immediately goes out the window when Hank unloads the duffle bag on the kitchen table.

Sarah suggests that Hank put some of the money back. Her logic is sound and reasonable, so with Jacob as his lookout, Hank returns to the crash site and puts back $400,00.

The appearance of a local farmer on a fox hunt panics Jacob and sets into motion a series of events that pit all three friends against each other. You never know where “A Simple Plan” is going to take you.

The bleak, snow bleached terrain is the perfect setting for a film whose characters get darker every minute. Hank starts off as a noble white knight, but before the end of the film finds himself compromised by performing desperate acts.

At the beginning of the film, Sarah is comfortable with her life, but money turns her into a manipulative and greedy woman willing to sacrifice everything for her happiness.

Smith’s screenplay is a verbal thumbscrew that director Raimi delights in twisting and turning. The potent duo manage to take familiar themes are take them to the next level so they’re fresh and exciting again.

Raimi gets wonderful performances from everyone in the cast, especially Billy Bob Thornton as Jacob. Under a mop of shaggy hair and thick-rimmed glasses held together by duct tape, Thornton delivers a performance that sticks with you. You really want to feel sorry for Jacob, yet as written by Smith and played by Thornton, Jacob never believes he’s a victim. It’s that endearing quality that should nab Thornton a Best Supporting Acting Oscar.

Paxton, who co-starred with Thornton in “One False Move,” is very good as Hank. Paxton excels in roles like this, and he stands tall as a man forced to make some very tough decisions. Fonda shines as the simple wife who finds her judgement blinded by all that green. There’s an honesty in her performance that suggests more than reading lines and reacting.

Brent Briscoe, who co-starred with Thornton in “Sling Blade,” does an excellent job of portraying a close friend who suspects that he’s about to become a statistic. The rest of the cast is solid, including Gary Cole as an FBI agent whose involvement with the plane crash seems suspicious.

The characters in “A Simple Plan” are forced to make some complicated and difficult decisions. Because the talented cast makes it so easy to invest ourselves in the characters, those decisions become more emotional and make a bigger impact.

Director Raimi, who made his mark with the “Evil Dead” series, shows great maturity as a film maker. “A Simple Plan” proves that he can tell a story without the benefit of dazzling cinematography and splashy special effects. He shows great strength and depth dealing with characters in everyday situations.

Danny Elfman’s musical score is an unsettling mix of strings and horns that suggest malevolence. The tech credits are extraordinary, but it’s the volatile mixture of terrific acting, riveting writing and dynamic direction that make “A Simple Plan” simply one of the best suspense films in recent memory.

STICKING TO A GREAT “PLAN”

A SIMPLE PLAN

Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Gary Cole, Becky Ann Baker, Chelcie Ross in a film directed by Sam Raimi. Rated R. 123 Min.



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