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Review by Jay Rittenberg

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Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, and Billy Bob Thornton

If I were an Academy member, I'd have done more justice to the "Best Picture" race and nominated Scott Smith's film adaptation of his novel A Simple Plan instead of The Thin Red Line, but more sympathy went to the war epic instead of this razor sharp, Fargo-dlike murder mystery. Happily, partial justice was served when it picked up Oscar nominations for "Best Adapted Screenplay," and "Best Supporting Actor." With the look and feel of the Coen brothers' best work, it delivers as the year's number-one thriller.

Director Sam Raimi's film revolves around three men that couldn't be any different. Hank (Bill Paxton) is the perennial good guy who lives in a Sleepy Hollow type town where everyone knows his name. He has a beautiful, pregnant wife named Sarah (Bridget Fonda) and a steady job. Hank's brother Jacob (Sling Blade star Billy Bob Thornton) has a big heart, but he "ain't too bright." He can't hold onto a job and spends all his time with his buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe), who can down more beers than anyone else in town. Jacob's brother got all the smarts -- and the family's good looks as well.

The three go out and have themselves one hell of a day -- they discover a plane with a corpse and a "King Kong"-size duffel bag containing $4.4 million, setting up the first of many dilemmas: "What do you do?" "Do you keep it?" "What?!" It's the (tax-free!) $4.4 million dollar question. Their plan is to keep the cash, split it and run, but as you can imagine, this turns out to be a difficult decision as more questions arise. We could be asking the same questions: "Will we get away with it?" "Who can we tell?" and, more importantly, "Who can we trust?" The "simple plan" is nothing of the kind.

As soon as they finished counting the loot, things start to get tense. When the sheriff drives by, Jacob (whose bulb is starting to dim) says to his brother, "Did you tell him about the plane?" Right then and there, you knew you'd better strap right in because these guys were ready to detonate at any time. The three survive the scare and agree not to tell anyone, but who's actually good at keeping a secret?

Sympathy quickly shifts to Hank, who's not only busy babysitting but watches in horror as his wife turns into a calculating architect of moralistic head spinning. At first, she tells Hank what he did was wrong but then tells him to put some money back just in case there's somebody out there in hot pursuit.

Sarah, like the others, self-destructs right before our eyes. They have all become greedy and paranoid while trusting each other less with every passing day. The tension puts you on the edge of your seat, totally involved with what's going on.

There are many reasons you'll adore this film. A great choice of locations, solid acting, and a top-notch story grasp you hook, line, and sinker. First of all, it was a stroke of genius to go back to Fargo country and put the story in a wintry ghost town. The eerie atmosphere makes the tension build and the goose bumps multiply even quicker.

The acting is as potent as the backdrop is cold. Bill Paxton finally got a chance to flex his acting muscles, turning in a very believable performance as the character with a conscience. What the film does so well is to show that even the most Jimmy Stewart type of guy can self-destruct in the face of selfishness. It's priceless to see Paxton transform from his Clark Kent persona to a deceitful, insider-trader style of liar. As Hank's wife Sarah, Bridget Fonda is chilling as she transforms from a sweet woman to a ruthless criminal mastermind, constantly pulling the rug from under her husband's feet and spinning things even more out of control.

Billy Bob Thornton, however, stands out as the film's lost soul. Although perceived as a simple man, he is as complex as the plan itself, a gentle man who's made one too many mistakes. Ironically, when he tries to make things better, he makes them terribly worse. It's hard to find fault with him, however, because Thornton gives his character an awfully big heart. He wants to purchase the family farm with his share and turn it into the winner that his father always envisioned. Jacob reasons that life was simpler then and that with some money he can turn back the clock.

Like the Coen brother's masterpiece Fargo, Raimi's film has enough twists to turn you into a pretzel. You feel like you shouldn't breathe because you just might miss something. Once the director knows that you're hooked, he goes straight for the jugular and shocks you until he's gotten his point across. He gives us a tale that we can all relate to. We can be any one of these people and what's to say that we wouldn't self-destruct under the same circumstances?

Even though you know that things are going to go wrong, you never know when and how bad. Just when you think it can't get any better, the film sends out a few shock waves to keep you on your toes as its theme goes from "Will they keep the money?" to "Will they survive?" A Simple Plan is a classic American horror story in which money gets in the way and destroys. Do the film some justice and catch it at a theater near you before it's too late!

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