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Friday, Sept. 17, 1999

'A SIMPLE PLAN'

Money changes everything


Imagine this: You're off in the middle of some raven-infested woods hunting with your buddies. Suddenly you discover a crashed plane, almost hidden by a layer of encrusted ice. Examining the interior of the plane you find one pilot, dead, and one big bag, bursting at the seams with over $4 million in cold cash. Question: What do you do?

Cinematic history suggests whatever you do, DON'T TAKE THE BAG! Oh sure, you're ecstatic and dreaming of retiring to a yacht stocked with illegal inhalable substances and a bevy of silicone-enhanced Pamela Anderson lookalikes, but as we all know, it's only a matter of time before: 1) the Mob's on your tail ("Atlantic City"); 2) you've got a bullet in your head ("Jackie Brown"); or 3) your colleagues are preparing to carve you up like Sunday roast ("Shallow Grave").

But as "A Simple Plan" -- the new Sam Raimi-directed thriller based on a best-selling first novel by Scott Smith -- shows, everyone and their brother thinks that they'll be the ones to successfully take the money and run. Avarice vincit omni. Yet what Raimi's film makes clear -- with an icy ruthlessness that would make Hitchcock tremble with glee like a big bowl of black Jello -- is how hard it is to pull off the seemingly simplest of crimes, how a chain-reaction of suspicion and betrayal can erupt when massive, change-your-life-completely amounts of money are at stake.

Set in rural Minnesota in the midst of a gray-skied, snowed-over winter, "A Simple Plan" traces three men -- strait-laced family-man Hank (Bill Paxton), his rather slow-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's redneck buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) -- as they make such a life-changing discovery when they find that wrecked plane.

As far as Jacob and Lou are concerned, they've won the lottery. But spoilsport Hank insists they must turn the bag over to the cops -- anything else would be theft. Lou suggests that the bag probably contains drug money, and since the pilot is dead, they wouldn't be stealing from anyone anyway. Tempers flare but eventually a compromise is reached: Hank will keep the money till the plane is found; if at that point no one comes looking for the cash, they'll split it up three ways and all move to more anonymous locales.

Sounds like a plan, doesn't it? But it lasts less than 24 hours before fate throws a deadly spanner into the works. Hank's wife, Sara (Bridget Fonda), has a bright idea to further deflect suspicion, but a chance encounter makes it all go from bad to worse. Covering up appropriated cash soon turns into covering up accidental murder, and more, as it's discovered where the cash came from and who may come looking for it. . . .

While "A Simple Plan" is intensely suspenseful and gripping, it works due to its realism, not any silly plot contrivances or over-the-top violence. Like the Coen brothers' "Fargo" (friends of Raimi who he has worked with in the past), "A Simple Plan" establishes a recognizable small-town atmosphere peopled with believable characters, and builds the suspense from there. Every decision they make seems reasonable, and the tragedy comes from it all going wrong due to bits of stupid bad luck they could have never imagined. And it's only too easy to imagine yourself doing the same damn thing.

Ironically, it's Mr. Upright, Hank -- a middle-class type least in need of the money -- who becomes most obsessed with it, and making sure he isn't found out. Jacob meanwhile, a hardscrabble type, poor enough to wrap a present in a crumpled brown paper bag with a piece of pink ribbon, just becomes tired of all the lies and deceit and wants out. Especially when Hank asks him to betray his loudmouth beer-swilling friend Lou, who is desperate for cash now, in order to pay his rent.

The dynamic between these three is -- no question about it -- one of the best things you'll see on the screen this year. Bill Paxton, who's never really shone in the past, does a great job here as Hank, a clever guy gradually becoming too clever for his own good. Brent Briscoe as Lou makes a perfect foil, goading Hank for his education and namby-pamby (read: unboorish) behavior.

However, a truly inspired brilliant performanace comes from Thornton ("Sling Blade"), who as Jacob, is forced to choose between friendship and blood ties. The scene in which Hank tries to get Jacob to set up Lou for blackmail is nothing short of genius -- the seemingly dense Jacob remains entirely unreadable as he goads his brother, and leaves us with no idea as to which way he'll turn.

Rather than ironically ridicule poor working-class whites as mentally deficient trailer-park trash, as much of Hollywood and indie film is content to do these days, what "A Simple Plan" makes painfully clear is how much this money means to these blue-collar Joes. The great unspoken secret in America's neo-capitalist service-economy dream-world is that it's perfectly possible to do an honest day's work and still live on the threshold of poverty. Whether it's farm foreclosures, or the tape holding together Jacob's broken glasses, the specter of poverty poignantly underlines every scene in this film.

Director Sam Raimi has always been known for being unrepentently over-the-top, from the nauseous splatter and flesh-eating ghouls of "Evil Dead" through the gothic comic hyperkinesis of "Darkman," and the ironic Western pastiche of "The Quick and the Dead." Interestingly, "A Simple Plan" is a far cry from any of these works; it's Raimi's straightest film yet, devoid of smirking irony or flashy camera-work.

While we like that too, it's nice to see him showing some range, and a pleasant surprise to find that he can make a performance-driven film as well. Word has it, though, that now that he's gone mainstream, his next project will be a love romance with Kevin Costner -- maybe it is time for him to bring back the ghouls.

"A Simple Plan" starts tomorrow at Shibuya Hermitage and other theaters.


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