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Raimi's 'A Simple Plan' is simply a worthy thriller (****)

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Posted: Friday, May 11, 2007 10:00 pm

Sam Raimi is best known to general audiences as the creative mind behind the "Spider-Man" series, and he's most familiar to the indie crowd for his previous trilogy, the "Evil Dead" horror films. With two cultural icons like Spidey and Ash under his belt, it can be easy to forget that Raimi isn't merely a franchise filmmaker. In fact, his best work was done on a stand-alone film nearly a decade ago, long before Marvel's web-slinging super hero turned Raimi into a household name.

That film was "A Simple Plan," a criminally under-rated gem of a thriller that was released in 1998 to favorable critical notices but not much in the way of box office success. It's a shame it never reached a wider audience, because, in my estimation, this is one of the most well-acted, cleverly written, tautly directed suspense films ever made. It's a modern classic, and now that more people know of the filmmaker behind it, perhaps the film has a shot at garnering some of the word-of-mouth popularity that eluded it during its initial release.

Bill Paxton stars as Hank, a hard-working everyman living with his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) in a sleepy Midwestern town. One day while out in the woods with his brother Jacob (Oscar nominee Billy Bob Thornton) and friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), the three come across the wreckage of a small plane - and subsequently discover duffel bags filled with $4.4 million in cash.

Since the money probably belonged to some dead drug dealers anyway, the group formulates a plan to keep the discovery quiet and pocket the loot themselves. But the plan turns out not to be as simple as they once thought, and as mistrust grows and circumstances turn progressively violent, the group is forced to resort to desperate measures to protect their newfound livelihood.

The film is based on the acclaimed novel by Scott Smith (who also adapted the screenplay), and it's vastly superior to its source material. Whereas the novel depicted ordinary men turning into cold-blooded killers, the movie takes a more believable and sympathetic approach to the story. Raimi's film forces the viewer to sympathize with these characters to an uncomfortable extent, and never really gives us a chance to cast judgment upon them. Terrible as they are, all their actions are completely understandable, if not entirely justifiable. Coupled with two amazing lead performances from Paxton and Thornton as brothers torn apart by greed, this empathy elevates "A Simple Plan" to the level of grand tragedy.

"A Simple Plan" is rated R for violence and profanity.

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