Sam Raimi's films are like the lower-budget cousins of the works of Joel and Ethan Coen: Though enamored of the same odd angles, quirky characters, and kinetic camera movements, Raimi is often treated as a cult oddity rather than a true auteur. But it's hard to believe that the same director responsible for the Evil Dead films helmed this tragic tale. Based on the best-selling novel by Scott Smith (who also wrote the screenplay), A Simple Plan both simplifies and brings into focus the already simple and effective thriller. Two farm-town brothers (Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton) and their friend (Brent Briscoe) discover a bag stuffed with $4.4 million and decide to hold onto the contents until springtime, when the coast is clear. Almost immediately, greed and insecurities get to work, and the plan begins to unravel. The premise is older than The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, and A Simple Plan may remind some of the Coen Brothers' Fargo, particularly for the way both films set bloody, sudden violence against the snow-covered Midwest. But where the Coens' breakthrough film was often cold, and sometimes mean-spirited and cynical, Raimi's film beats with a human heart. The relationship between college grad Paxton and his simple (but not necessarily stupid) brother Thornton is right out of Steinbeck, with Paxton as George to Thornton's Lenny, and as the film progresses, the relationship becomes increasingly complex. Raimi, for the most part, lies pretty low, letting his capable actors do with their eyes what he would have once done with a wildly swinging camera. In A Simple Plan, the eyes really have it, from Briscoe's looks of desperation to Paxton's flashes of panic, and finally to the astounding depths of sadness Thornton brings to his character. A Simple Plan is no holiday pick-me-up, but with so many solid performances in its favor, the bleak, restrained film should not be overlooked.
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