Immorality Play

Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are riveting as brothers dancing on the icy slope of treachery in the chillingly effective 'A Simple Plan."

January 22, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"A Simple Plan" is sure to send a chill down filmgoers' spines, literally and figuratively.

Set in the frigid tundra of a north Michigan winter, this foreboding tale of greed and destruction will send audiences diving for their wraps, if only in a fit of vicariousness.

Yet even more chilling is this movie's unrelenting examination of the dark side of human nature. Here, banality and evil co-exist with unsettling ease, making even such cozy environs as a kitchen or a baby's nursery suddenly exude a weird sense of foreboding.

Adapted by Scott B. Smith from his best-selling 1993 novel of the same name, "A Simple Plan" stars Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as Hank and Jacob, two brothers living in the same small town, albeit on drastically different courses.

Hank, a college graduate, holds down a good job, and he and his librarian wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), are expecting a baby. Jacob, on the other hand, leads the life of a lumpen redneck, guzzling beer with his buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) and keeping company with his dog, Mary Beth.

The two brothers' lives intersect in unexpectedly intimate ways when they discover a private airplane downed in a nearby woods. It contains a bag of money -- $4.4 million to be exact -- and what they decide to do with it will have lasting and fatal consequences.

Directed with admirable skill by Sam Raimi (best-known for low-budget horror flicks like "The Evil Dead"), "A Simple Plan" is anything but simple, despite its clear, straightforward style. On the most obvious level, it's about the evil that even good people are capable of and the moral consequences of even peering into the abyss. But beneath the superbly controlled exterior of this sharply observed drama churns a complex sea of shifting motivations, especially when the characters must give up their most cherished self-perceptions.

"A Simple Plan" would succeed as a taut, intelligent thriller alone, but the movie is much more involving than that, primarily because it's more interested in the inner lives than the actions of its characters.

The matrix of jealousy, shame and love that exists between Hank and Jacob is evoked without falseness, and the beatifically maternal Sarah emerges as a conspiratorial genius on a par with Lady Macbeth.

Indeed, as "A Simple Plan" gains momentum, it recalls not only Shakespeare but "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and the best of Alfred Hitchcock. (Raimi goes back to his gory roots for some creepy bird scenes inside the crashed plane, as well as some gruesome gunplay later on.)

Billy Bob Thornton has rightly been singled out by several critics' groups for his performance as Jacob, who by the end of "A Simple Plan" has become a surprisingly memorable and heart-rending character. But don't overlook the less flashy but crucial work of Paxton, who never sheds his veneer of decency, even as Hank's flirtation with immorality succumbs to seduction.

Thornton and Paxton -- last seen together in the equally dark and satisfying "One False Move" -- play brothers with almost uncanny verisimilitude. Among its several achievements, "A Simple Plan" can be applauded for once again presenting these fine actors with roles they seem born to play.

`A Simple Plan'

Starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda

Directed by Sam Raimi

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated R (violence and language)

Running time 117 minutes

Sun score * * * *

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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