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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 12/10/1998, B: Peter Keough,

Blood Simple

Sam Raimi's latest goes according to Plan

by Peter Keough

A SIMPLE PLAN, Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Scott B. Smith based on his novel. With Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Gary Cole, Becky Ann Baker, Chelcie Ross, and Jack Walsh. A Paramount Pictures release.

Most critics hold Quentin Tarantino accountable for the direction of all American independent (or pseudo-auteurist) filmmaking, but lately it seems the credit or blame could lie with the Coen brothers, or go back even earlier. As in their first film, Blood Simple, the Coens' starting point is a seeming innocent tempted into evil and then punished with sadistic ingenuity, with the victim's efforts at escape bringing only more entanglement. It's a trick they picked up from Hitchcock, if not Buster Keaton, and it's been practiced recently with varying success by Neil LaBute in Your Friends & Neighbors, Todd Solondz in Happiness, and Peter Berg in Very Bad Things.

The best of these knockoffs is Sam Raimi's adaptation of Scott B. Smith's bestselling thriller A Simple Plan. It prevails over predictability because of its canny subtlety, depth of character, and literate intelligence -- qualities hardly to be expected from the director of The Evil Dead and Darkman. Showing untypical restraint, Raimi lets his simple plan take seed and sprout with ruthless, exhilarating inevitability.

Opening with a monochromatic snowscape reminiscent of Fargo (this film is also set in Minnesota, though shot in Wisconsin) punctuated by such ominous harbingers as a fox and ravens (symbols developed in diabolical counterpoint to the plot), Plan opens on a pair of brothers setting off to pay their respects at their father's gravesite. Hank (Bill Paxton in his best performance since the oddly similar One False Move) is the respectable sibling, with a stable job, a home, a pretty wife, Sarah (a blandly sinister and vastly pregnant Bridget Fonda), and a child on the way. But Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton, whose nuanced performance is almost lost under a fright wig, fake teeth, and taped spectacles), the older brother, is a mess. Jobless, crack-brained, and a social pariah, he incurs Sarah's disdain and suspicion; she reluctantly watches Hank set off with Jacob and the latter's even more disreputable buddy Lou (a jubilantly slovenly Brent Briscoe) on their mission.

Her misgivings are well-founded. The atmosphere in Jacob's pick-up seethes with envy and contempt -- not to mention six-packs and high-powered rifles. Jacob's dog suddenly gives chase to the fox seen in the opening, and as Hank slogs his good clothes through the snowfield to join in the pursuit, they pass a tree full of ravens and come across a crashed plane holding a dead man and $4 million.

At first the no-account Jacob and Lou push the plan to split the money and not report it, and the upright Hank refuses. Somehow, though, Hank ends up taking the cash home for safekeeping, and the sight of it piled up on the kitchen table dissolves Sarah's tepid moralistic objections. Soon she grows into a bloodless Lady Macbeth, researching the origins of the money, contriving schemes to elude those searching for it, plotting to keep loose cannons Jacob and Lou at odds and ultimately out in the cold. Of course these plans backfire, compounding the problems and resulting in yet another body, which requires yet another plan, ad insanitatem.

Fonda's character is the weak link in Raimi's Plan -- though the desperation of her life as a marginal housewife is whinily described, she's resolutely unsympathetic, and in the end she becomes a misogynistic scapegoat. Much richer are the dynamics of family pathology hinted at in the relationship between Hank and Jacob, with Lou serving as taunting instigator and pawn. In one of the most amazing scenes in film this year, the three gather at Lou's -- Hank and Jacob ostensibly allied in an effort to get Lou to incriminate himself. This time, though, it's Jacob who calls the shots, and in a multi-layered tour-de-force performance, Thornton takes his character through vertiginous levels of treachery, revelation, and despair; it all ends in a convulsive consummation.

At its best, A Simple Plan evokes the bleak gothic misanthropy of Flannery O'Connor, a breath of melancholy cooling its most blood-curdling moments. At its worst, it's just one more callow installment in nihilism chic, a predictable exercise in the philosophy that shit happens. But it never entirely falls into that trap, and until the very end, when it shifts uncomfortably from Treasure of the Sierra Madre into Of Mice and Men, Raimi's film is a soul-blasting map to the heart of chaos and evil.