If you're going to stumble onto $4 million, there are few places to do it that are spookier, or more cinematic, than the site of a crashed propeller plane buried in the snowy serenity of a Midwestern wilderness. In A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi's rivetingly accomplished crime thriller, Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), a small-town feed-store accountant, makes his accidental big score in exactly this sort of pastoral wasteland. Hank, a faithful, married, do-right kind of guy, is wandering through the woods with his dim-bulb older brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's beer-guzzling buddy, Lou (Brent Briscoe), when a dislodged snowbank reveals the downed plane. The moment they discover the cash, which has been stuffed into a duffel bag, they have a good idea of what it is; it must be drug money, or some sort of comparable dirty fortune. Hank, the ''moral'' one, says that it would be wrong to swipe the booty. What he really means is that he's scared they won't get away with it. Moments later, Hank himself has come up with a plan: He'll hide the money until spring, at which point, if there's been no inquiry, the three of them will divvy up the spoils. All they have to do is keep quiet.
Adapted from the 1993 novel by Scott B. Smith, who also wrote the script, A Simple Plan is lean, elegant, and emotionally complex a marvel of backwoods classicism. It's proof that Raimi, after the splatterific Evil Dead series and the lushly operatic Darkman, has now grown into a filmmaker of ravishing maturity and skill. In this tensely layered and ominous caper, greed is the ultimate truth serum. It brings the ugliest sides of relationships burbling to the surface: hostility in place of trust, hunger crushing all restraint. Given the prospect of all that money, even the happiest of marriages is not what it seems.
From the outset, there's a self-destructive rivalry between Hank, the hard-toiling family man, and the lowly, unemployed wastrel Lou, who hails from the opposite side of the class spectrum. Lou thinks Hank is a wimp, a college-boy priss, and he takes a special delight in taunting him (especially when drunk). The most intriguing character is the one who stands between the two, the wormy, ambiguous Jacob, who is tied to Hank by blood but closer to his buddy by temperament. Here, as in Sling Blade, Thornton creates a poignant man-child, only this time he brings the character's lonely freakishness perilously close to us. Stunted yet innocent, with a grotesque doofus scowl and tufts of greasy long hair poking out from his cap, his Jacob is a born loser who sees more than he appears to. His strength lies not in his brain but in his repressed resentment it gives him feelers. Thornton is one of those actors who seem to alter the very shape of the their face with each role. He gives a memorable performance, as if Jim Varney were channeling Charles Laughton.
Only rarely does a movie succeed in making the audience feel part of the criminal process, sucking us into the fear and temptation of shooting beyond the law. One thinks of Hitchcock, or the sinful prospectors of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or the perfectly planned and inevitably botched heists of The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing. It's no small praise to say that A Simple Plan earns its place alongside these fables of intimate suspense. The desolate, wintry setting and random bursts of mayhem lend the movie a superficial resemblance to Fargo, but Raimi works without the Coen brothers' jokey plastic detachment. The comedy here, which is much less stylized, springs from the most understated of screwups, as when Jacob, seized by panic, blurts something to a cop about having heard a plane. It's the bane of amateur crooks: Every attempt at a cover-up is really an unconscious confession.
The ironic kick of the movie is that Paxton's Hank, the one guy coolheaded enough to bring this crime off, is bound to these two impulsive, neurotic bums. They're like the billboards of his guilt. Spurred on by his wife (Bridget Fonda), who looks at that money as if it's her ticket to heaven, Hank can't back out. He's tied to his dream of easy deliverance, and it leads him to launch the most patched-together of scams, as he tries to outfox and entrap his partners. Of course, all he's done is entrap himself. A Simple Plan is the most gripping dramatization in years of the proposition that crime will always cost more than it pays. A