Photo by Melissa Moseley

Two small-town brothers and one of their friends find a bag full of money in the woods and decide to keep it. No small thing, since the money adds up to $4.4 million, and all three men are just itching to sell one another out. Adapted by Scott B. Smith from his own best-selling suspense novel and superbly directed by Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan is a great Ameri can movie about a great American theme — greed. It’s a tough, unadorned, unassuming movie, and that’s part of what makes it great too. Raimi, whose most well-known film until now was the horror cheapie The Evil Dead, here reveals the same rare gift of modesty that has always characterized our best directors: He distills the poetry in pulp without lessening its brute power, and ends up saying something mean ingful about human nature without the imprimatur of history and a John Wil liams score. In one of the sweetest ironies of the entire film year, Sam Raimi has made an A-movie with the soul of a B-movie classic.

The stars of A Simple Plan are Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, both of whom were featured in another modern B-movie classic, Carl Franklin’s One False Move. Here Paxton plays Hank, the strait-laced youngest son of an Ohio farm couple who died bankrupt. Thornton is his gargoyle older brother, Jacob, an unemployed, unmarried, not-quite simpleton whose even tual and devastating depths are hinted at by his biblical name. Jacob lives with his loving mutt, Mary Ann, in a broken-down apartment crammed with trash and soured dreams; Hank lives in a two-story starter house with his pregnant wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda). The only one in his family to go to college, Hank works within walking distance of his home as an accountant at a feed store, where he’s kept as busy filling sacks of grain as handling ledgers and struggling farmers.

“I had all that,” Hank dolefully announces in an opening voice-over as flat as an untuned piano. “I was a happy man.” While the narration lets us know Hank’s happiness is a lost cause, the film itself doesn’t seem interested in worrying that detail, and right off plunges us into the vivid past. It’s New Year’s Eve, and Hank and Jacob, along with Jacob’s derelict friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), have met to visit their parents’ graves. On the way to the cemetery, a fox with a chicken locked in its jaws darts in front of Jacob’s truck, forcing it off the road. Hunting rifle in tow, Jacob takes off after the fox into an adjacent nature preserve, with Lou, Hank and his dog along side him. With crows perched above like inky auguries and Danny Elfman’s neurotic instrumentation plotting the way, the men discover a downed plane nestled in the thick snow, with a corpse and the $4.4 million. After some fractious indecision (“You work for the American Dream, you don’t steal it,” Hank whines), they opt to sit on the cash for six months to see if anyone claims it. Hank hauls the loot home for safekeeping and, with his wife, toasts a future that never comes.

Extremes in human behavior tend to bring out the best in American movies, and the worst. Recently, we seem to have grown impatient with minor gestures, insignificant moments, nuance; instead of Lubitsch’s touch, we now have the Farrelly brothers’ merciless thwack. We want our stories to be over the top, or at least larger than life, and our characters to be rich, powerful, beautiful, preferably all three. (We don’t really care about their lives, though, just the entertainment value of their misery.) In many respects, A Simple Plan doesn’t look all that different from some other movies we’ve seen lately — a handful of characters cross a moral threshold and immediately start thrashing about in the swamps of their own fear and desire. What makes A Simple Plan so much better than most of these films, makes it so exhilarating and surprisingly felt, is that the damage done is more riveting, more meaningful, than the film’s switchback plotting, Grand Guignol atmospherics or honest shock value.

Until now Raimi has made mostly horror movies, including the quasi-operatic Darkman, and a lackluster Western pastiche, The Quick and the Dead. (He’s also the executive producer of the cult TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.) A Simple Plan isn’t a horror movie, but it often feels close kin to one — in Raimi’s beautifully modulated pacing, in the low-frequency dread that begins to vibrate around the edges of the frame shortly after the money is divided, in the unease that ripples across the actors’ faces like nausea, distorting their features to the very edge of caricature. This is Paxton’s and especially Thornton’s finest, most emotionally shaded work since One False Move, and Fonda’s best performance ever. There’s a terrifyingly feral quality to her in this film: When Sarah first sees the money, you half expect her to start gnawing on the cash, or to sweep it under her huge belly for safekeeping. Briscoe is an even greater revelation: His face wadded into fear and longing, Lou is a man whose simple greed is rapidly outdistanced by a level of sin he can barely comprehend.

There’s a terrific intensity to all the per form ances, an urgency that flows through them like an electric current, sending sparks off every line and scene the actors brush up against. In contrast to his last movie, The Quick and the Dead, a film whose frenetic virtuosity too often made the director seem as if he had attention deficit disorder, Raimi knows better than to goose Smith’s creepy, tingly story with clashing edits or needlessly overwrought camera work; he lets the horror build scene by scene, wince by wince, betrayal by betrayal, until it all but pulses through the film like Poe’s telltale heart. Poe is one obvious touchstone here — Charles Laughton’s dark fairy tale Night of the Hunter is another — not only because of the ebony birds that perch above the men as they trudge toward their fate, but in its conception of an involuntary, plaintive and primitive evil.

From the moment he agrees to split up the money, Hank makes all the wrong choices, but instead of thrilling to those choices, and riding along shotgun until the predictably irony-saturated payoff, we cringe. There’s an Old Testament weightiness to Hank’s decisions, and a terrible pathos. Smith’s novel is a cautionary tale with an unremarkable prose style and a topical sense of morality, but Raimi’s movie is a full-on tragedy. In the novel, each of Hank’s actions strips away at our original sense of him — he unpeels like an onion — but when it’s finally over, there’s no sense that there was anything really human at the center. He’s like one of Jim Thomp son’s lunatics, whose big words and good grammar lull us into thinking he can’t be all bad, until the point when he begins to twist the knife as hard as his logic. The screen Hank is far more ordinary, and far more human; he’s a man whose averageness is the scariest thing about him.

Paxton has one of those wide-open, un complicated faces that remains appealingly juvenile no matter how many lines crease his forehead, and at the beginning of the film he gives Hank the kind of little-boy blankness that life can fill in with complacency or a deep-aching, unarticulated rage, sometimes both. After college, Hank returned to his hometown with a degree and diminished expectations; when he finds the money, he discovers he only thought he was a happy man. It’s a slowly formed epiphany, one that comes soon after the first lie begets the first murder. By then, the little lines around Hank’s eyes seem to have deepened, and his mouth looks just a little bit harder than it did when he left work that day. By then, Hank has crossed over, as has Raimi — suddenly, he’s one of the most exciting American directors we have.

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