Two brothers are driven to murder by the lure of stolen cash.
Scott B. Smith's debut novel - which he has adapted for the screen - bears a jacket recommendation from no less than Stephen King ("The best suspense novel of this year"), and it's easy to see why it tickled the great man's fancy. It may not deal in the supernatural but A Simple Plan bears many King parallels with its domestic tale of smalltown equilibrium shattered by an unexpected event. Of all King's stories, A Simple Plan most readily conjures Misery, largely because it's also set in the snowy Midwest, specifically Minnesota - in other words, Fargo country. That it compares favourably with both those films gives you a clue how good it is.
A simple story: the Mitchell brothers, Hank (Paxton) and Jacob (Thornton), are thankfully nothing like their Albert Square namesakes - one is an unassuming, happily-married mill worker, the other a funny-looking simpleton and virgin ("We don't have one thing in common except maybe our last name"). When they stumble upon a crashed plane in the woods with Jacob's buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe), their lives change forever, for inside is a duffel bag containing $4 million cash. The pilot is dead - his eyes forebodingly pecked out by crows - so the three conspire to keep the money until the snow thaws, and then share it out. In covering their tracks, Jacob makes a string of blunders and Hank's Lady Macbeth-like pregnant wife Sarah (Fonda) pushes him deeper and deeper into trouble, involving blackmail, lies and, you guessed it, murder.
Director Raimi apparently received coaching from his pals Joel and Ethan Coen about how best to work in snow, and it figures. A Simple Plan is more than just staged in wintertime, its narrative is deeply embedded in the unyielding drifts: the agonising wait until spring serves to hammer dissensions within the fraternal pact, and yet in masking the accidental conspirators' footprints, the weather also becomes an accomplice. Meanwhile, it gives Raimi a stunning, graphic backdrop against which to play his economical psychodrama; although characterised by acrobatic camerawork in the Evil Dead films and others, A Simple Plan sees the director maturing, and pulling off a remarkably impressive character piece. Which is where Paxton and Thornton come in: the former overcoming a previous blandness (and the fact that he resembles Jack Dee) with a powerful turn as the Minnesotan Macbeth, subtly countered by perhaps Thornton's most three-dimensional hick shtick to date.
As the kind-hearted, guilt-ridden dimwit, he becomes Hank's conscience ("Do you ever feel evil?"), and never plays the part for facile sympathy. Little wonder he's been Golden Globe-nominated and honoured by the LA Film Critics Association for his role (and with those sticky-out teeth, too).
Although the simple plan itself spirals out of control and becomes complicated, this remains a simple, modest film: chilly, engrossing and human. Some of the novel's unpleasantness has been pruned for the screen and wisely so, allowing greater scope for the brothers' uneven relationship to develop (there's a touching scene in which Hank talks Jacob to sleep with soothing memories of their father and we realise that murder has actually brought them closer together). Shallow Grave will inevitably spring to mind, as will The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, but the film's emphasis on setting, performance and Shakespearean symbolism put it on another shelf entirely.
A very special and uncompromising piece of work. Wrap up warm.