Ultratough guy Jesse "The Body" Ventura says he means business as the new governor of Minnesota. But for now the nasty crime wave in that state continues unchecked -- in the movies, anyway. Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, a psychological thriller that shows us how dangerous life can get after three ordinary men from a remote Minnesota farm town stumble across $4.4 million, makes for a splendid companion piece to the Coen Brothers' deliciously perverse Fargo (1996). Right down to the blood on the snow and the moral chill in the characters' hearts.
Director Raimi, the able stylist who gave us camp horror in cult hits such as The Evil Dead (1982) and Army of Darkness (1993), steers clear of the supernatural this time around. But there are still plenty of evil spirits at large in this tale of earthly greed, desperation, and distrust. Adapted from Scott B. Smith's 1993 best seller, the movie version was originally to be directed by Mike Nichols. Then it was John Boorman. Then Ben Stiller. That the task finally fell to Raimi should disappoint no one: He clearly has a gift for turning wickedness over in his hands and seeing what it feels like, even in a homely landscape of rusty pickup trucks and failing bank accounts.
The checkered anti-heroes of the piece are Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), a buttoned-up college grad who has settled for an accounting job at the feed store in his dreary hometown; Hank's brother Jacob (Sling Blade's Billy Bob Thornton), a lonely hick who lives in a hovel with his old dog; and Jacob's boozy pal Lou (Brent Briscoe), a blustering redneck given to fights in barrooms and shouting matches with his nagging wife. They may not sound very interesting, but when the three men find the snow-shrouded wreck of a small airplane in a stand of woods, and a bag stuffed with cash inside, their lives start to get a lot more complicated than they could ever have imagined.
After much haggling, the plan: Hank, the middle-class guy, will stow the money until spring, when the plane is sure to be found. Once the heat is off, they'll divvy it up. But don't count on it. Like the timeless models of the genre, the glitter-blinded prospectors of 1948's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this trio sinks ever deeper into the coils of gold fever, paranoia, and violence. Allegiances shift, old sibling resentments bubble up from the past, and people start to die.
"It's the American Dream in a goddamn gym bag," fat Lou exults over the mysterious millions.
"No. You work for the American Dream," Hank counters, and the battle is joined.
Throw in a chance meeting with a local cop, an encounter with a curious farmer on a snowmobile, and the creeping geometry of desire, and pretty soon the moral universe of three Everymen is in serious disarray. We needn't look very far for a new supply of Raimi's trademark omens: A stealthy fox literally gets into a henhouse; inside the wreck, black birds of prey peck at the face of the dead pilot, and, in their lust, nick our man Hank over one eyebrow.
Beyond the relentless snow and chill desolation of their setting, neither Raimi nor Smith (who wrote the screenplay from his book) seems overly interested in local color or (like the Coens) regional accent. But that doesn't prevent Paxton (Apollo 13, Twister), Thornton, and Briscoe (who appeared with Thornton in Sling Blade) from producing some of the most memorable ensemble acting of the year. Exalted and tormented by the countless bundles of 100s (drug money? a ransom? cash without consequence?), each man wrestles with his personal demons and with the other men. Hank wants comfort and security for his new baby and his wife (Bridget Fonda), whose simple contentment has soured into avarice and calculation. Lou needs to pay his debts and quiet his wife (Becky Ann Baker). Awkward, downtrodden Jake, the most touching and -- surprise -- the most complex of the trio, dreams of having a life -- any life -- after decades of rejection. "Hank?" he asks his brother at last. "Do you ever feel evil?"
That, of course, is the $4.4 million question. As the half-baked schemes of trapped men fly out of control and the body count steadily mounts, Raimi and his wonderfully balanced cast produce a resonant moral tale in the vacancy of a cold landscape. Little matter that it trades on the oldest saw in the book: Money Can't Buy You Happiness. It hasn't been this vividly re-examined in decades, and we're the richer for it.