By Nick Nunziata
December 11, 1998

I had just complained that I wouldn’t be able to see this film until January.Well, they released it here in Atlanta. In 1984 I saw a horror movie which I thought was great. In 1987 I saw the sequel and it changed my whole perception on film. That film was Evil Dead 2, and it was directed by a man named Sam Raimi. Since then, Raimi has gone to the classic Army of Darkness, to the Batman killer Darkman, to the great western The Quick and the Dead. He also helped make Xena and Hercules wildly successful television shows. He’s back on the big screen, and it is a beautiful thing.

A Simple Plan

Directed by Sam (Evil Dead, Darkman) Raimi

Starring Bill (Twister, True Lies) Paxton, Billy Bob (Sling Blade, Armageddon) Thornton, and Bridget (Doc Hollywood, Godfather 3) Fonda

Based on the dark thriller of a novel titled (of all things) “A Simple Plan”, this film is a cautionary tale about greed, the bonds of family and friendship, and the price you pay for crime.

The film starts off with the bleak, muffled wonderland of Smalltown, North USA. Snow blankets the ground and flurries all but silence the world. Ravens watch from above and see all, waiting for death’s icy grip to grab their next meal. The placid domain is disrupted by a truck coming up the frozen road, and when the riders of the vehicle have to go on foot to chase their dog they stumble across something potentially wonderful. A crashed plane filled with over four million dollars.

The three men, brothers Hank and Jacob (Paxton and Thornton) and a friend (Brent Briscoe) immediately are swarmed with ways to keep the money. College educated straight arrow Hank’s response to claims that they’ve discovered “The American Dream” is the quiet, wobbly “You work for the American Dream, you don’t find it” is the turning point in the film. Where everything slowly dissolves into a slow burning horror destined to rip all they hold dear apart. Of course they decide to keep the money, and the ramifications of that decision unfold over the next 100 minutes which for the most part fly by even though there is no real action to speak of. When the film has finally ended, everyone (audience included) has been through a winter of a lot more than discontent, and a film likely to remain on the brain for a long time.

Sam Raimi has always been known as a director of hyperkinetic slapstick tendencies whether making a no budget horror film in a high school gym, or making a moderate budget western with A-List talent (including a Leonardo DiCaprio a lot more fun and fresh than the current model). He has pioneered new peaks in action photography, and has been involved in the growth of the Coen Brothers (whose “Fargo” has been compared to “A Simple Plan” although snow and greed are the only ties) and was part of the deal which first brought John Woo to American theaters. His “Evil Dead” films are cult classics which have a cadre of fans clamoring for a fourth installment. He supposedly turned down “Godzilla”, “King Kong”, and most luckily “Jack Frost” waiting for his next directing gig, and when he chose the movie based on Scott Smith’s novel, most expected a furious romp in the snow. Not the case, there is no “Camel Head” cameras (inside joke for true Evil Dead fans) and no speeding chases through the woods with Three Stooges combat (another Raimi staple). It is simply a canvas made up of small strokes instead of wild splashes.

Zooming in close to the weary, worried lines on Bill Paxton’s face as he constantly adapts their increasingly more complex plan to the increasingly dangerous predicament he and his pregnant wife (Fonda) are in tells stories of its own. The bleak environment of the tiny town and expansive snow plains give it an odd, uncomfortable blend of a claustrophobic yet wide open world where tracks must be covered, and people must not speak. His direction and storytelling in this movie is more successful than he’s ever been before, simply because there is no gimmickry in his arsenal.

The actors take it to a new level, primarily Paxton and Thornton. I’ve always viewed Paxton as a fun actor in fun movies but not a serious actor capable of carrying a film like this. “One False Move” and “Traveler” hinted at it, but he has entered a new world with this, and I would not be exaggerating to say they there may be a nomination with his name on it this year. His performance is very brave, and very moving. Thornton, on the other hand, WILL have a nomination with his name on it this year. Although offscreen antics with his wife have hurt his public image, his onscreen persona has been the most varied mix of magical variety seen in a long time. From the classic “Sling Blade” to the nutty “U-turn” to the generic “Armageddon” he has always entertained. In this, he is a mix of Lennie from “Of Mice and Men” and the ever growing list of characters who are intelligence challenged but show flashes of lucidity and depth. His character tugs at the heartstrings one moment, then makes the audience call him a fool the next.

There are two scenes which will earn him that nomination, one where he and his brother reminisce and another when he asks for a favor from his brother. He’s wonderful. Fonda is solid in a supporting, but pivotal role. It’s a gripping, intense film which manages to make you tense, sad, happy, fearful, and scared, sometimes at the same time. There are little touches that have earned him comparison to Alfred Hitchcock, not in the “DePalma” way, where the late director’s tactics are stolen, but by the feelings the films convey. Raimi is that kind of director, too talented to be a thief, and too much a fan of film not to pay tribute. He is going to be very exciting for a long time.

This film isn’t uplifting. It isn’t a “Fargo” rip off. It is a glimpse of what could happen to anyone under such circumstances. It may even upset some people. That makes it all that more important that you see it.

9 out of 10