In ‘A Simple Plan,’ Found Money, Lost Souls


The title of Scott B. Smith’s page-turning novel “A Simple Plan,” and the smartly condensed script he adapted for director Sam Raimi, describes the solution that a winter hiker comes up with after he and two others happen onto the carcass of a downed single-engine plane, and decide to keep a duffel bag found inside containing more than $4 million in cash.

The plan’s architect is Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), a married, underpaid accountant for a small mill in a depressed Midwestern town. The others are his good-hearted, but slow-witted, unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s boozy redneck pal Lou (Brent Briscoe).

Hank’s immediate reaction is to want to call the authorities. Lou’s is to take the money and run. And Jacob, who has the swing vote, is gridlocked by his divided loyalties to his brother and his overbearing best friend.


Finally, Hank comes up with a compromise. They’ll hide the money until the plane is found by others, and then decide, based on the likelihood of being caught, whether to keep it. It’s a simple plan set down on a slippery slope, the beginning of a chain reaction of greed, panic, paranoia, betrayal and murder.

The novel’s and the movie’s underlying assumptions are that the temptation in these stories of found money are universal, that we’d all at least consider the options before making a decision. And for those who would cross the line, there may be no turning back and a total surrender of their conscience.

Hank is a fundamentally decent person, with a pregnant wife, a mortgage and a future that he neither fantasizes nor fears. It’s only when the money is in his possession, when he and his briefly appalled wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), allow their imaginations to embrace the possibilities, that the larceny in all men’s hearts is activated in his.

Paxton, Central Casting’s answer to a call for Everyman, is the perfect choice for the role. He’s been playing variations on this theme of the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances throughout his career, most notably as the small-town sheriff in “One False Move” and astronaut Fred Haise in “Apollo 13.” Here, he’s playing a man who is transformed from upstanding citizen to ruthless killer, without seeming to change at all.

It’s a perfectly transparent performance, at once shocking and believable, and for those who prefer their dramatic arcs on a gentle curve, it’s one of the year’s more memorable efforts.

But most of the attention will be focused on another mesmerizing portrait of a rural simpleton by Thornton, who won an Oscar nomination and stardom as the paroled killer Karl Childers in “Sling Blade.” It is Jacob, not his brother, who carries the film’s moral compass, and, working with a prosthetic overbite, a rumpled winter wardrobe and a ratty mop of hair, Thornton makes him the most interesting character, as well.


Where Lou would impetuously blow his share of the loot at the soonest opportunity, and Hank would tuck it away like a pension fund to be parceled out in installments, Jacob wants to use his cut to buy and revive the farm where he and Hank grew up. He wants to reclaim his past, when he was loved and cared for, when life itself was a simple plan.

The role of Jacob is greatly expanded from the book, and the unsatisfying way that Smith and Raimi resolve the brothers’ relationship in the movie is the only major change--major compromise--made in transporting the novel to the screen.

Raimi, best known for a series of visually stylish gore-fests (“Dark Man,” “The Evil Dead”) and one wildly quirky western (“The Quick and the Dead”), restrains his appetite for excess in order to focus on the moral deterioration of Hank. The result is a chilling blend of heartland thriller and Scandinavian gothic.

“A Simple Plan,” bearing strong physical similarity to the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo,” is a black and white world accented in green (money) and red (blood). Virtually everything before Alar Kivilo’s camera is staged against a backdrop of knee-deep snow, under an ominous sky, creating for the audience--as it seems to for the characters--a mood of constant and ever-warranted dread.

Let it be a lesson to us all.

* MPAA rating: R for violence and language. Times guidelines: disturbing violence and a generally dark and frightening tone.


‘A Simple Plan’

Bill Paxton: Hank

Billy Bob Thornton: Jacob

Bridget Fonda: Sarah

Brent Briscoe: Lou

Gary Cole: Baxter

Becky Ann Baker: Nancy

Paramount Pictures and Mutual Film Co. present in association with Savoy Pictures a Sam Raimi Film. Directed by Sam Raimi. Screenplay by Scott B. Smith. Produced by James Jacks, Adam Schroeder. Executive producers Gary Levinson, Mark Gordon. Based on the novel by Scott B. Smith. Co-producer Michael Polaire. Director of photography Alar Kivilo. Production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein. Costume designer Julie Weiss. Edited by Arthur Coburn, Eric L. Beason. Music by Danny Elfman. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.


In general release around Southern California.