'Simple Plan' hatches Oscar-quality performances

New end-of-year movies will draw more attention from Oscar-watchers than "A Simple Plan," which features award-caliber performances by two actors in parts ideally suited to their styles.

Bill Paxton, whose laid-back manner lends itself nicely to regular-guy roles, plays an ordinary man who's allowed his life to veer dangerously out of control.

Billy Bob Thornton, who rocketed to fame as the slow-thinking redneck of "Sling Blade," plays an extremely limited man whose unsophisticated thought processes could prove either a saving grace or a tragic flaw.

It's an unusual partnership, but Paxton and Thornton turn in one of the year's best ensemble acting jobs, which could prove interesting when the motion-picture academy puts on its nominating hat and ponders which of the actors to choose. It's possible that this high-quality movie year has produced so many top-flight performances that neither will receive a nod. But that seems unlikely, and it's conceivable that the actors will end up competing against each other.

Adding spice to this Oscar scenario is that "A Simple Plan" was directed by Sam Raimi, who's rarely thought of as a molder of thoughtful portrayals. Glance at his credits, from "The Evil Dead" and "The Quick and the Dead" to "Army of Darkness" and "Darkman," and you'll have an idea of the wild-and-woolly fantasies that have kept him busy until now. "A Simple Plan" marks his first step into grown-up moviemaking, and an impressive step it turns out to be. He could conceivably figure in the Oscar race himself.

Paxton and Thornton play Hank and Jacob Mitchell, two Midwestern brothers. Hank seems contented with his average middle-class life, but can't help wishing his attractive wife and baby-on-the-way could someday be able to rise above the ordinary. Jacob is considerably lower on the social scale, plugging away as a laborer and wondering whether his days will be brightened by even the simplest pleasures.

Then an unexpected moral crisis drops into their laps. Tramping through the woods outside their village, they stumble on a wrecked airplane containing a dead pilot and a huge amount of money. Hank immediately knows the right thing to do - call the cops and turn it in, but Jacob and his friend Lou have a different idea. Since the cash probably comes from some aborted crime, why not keep it for themselves? This would be legally and ethically wrong, of course, but nobody would be hurt and their lives would be eased forever.

Slowly the three men hatch a simple plan to enrich themselves while avoiding all risk. What they don't count on are the wages of sin, which soon appear in the forms of paranoia, suspicion, and jealousy.

There are moments in "A Simple Plan" when Raimi can't rein in his penchant for over-the-top touches, juicing up the picture with suspense-movie tricks or bursts of violence. But most of the time he keeps the action under control, focusing attention on the story's real points of interest: its study of rich and involving characters and its poignant depiction of the sad results of dishonesty, duplicity, and greed.

Paxton and Thornton receive skilled assistance from Bridget Fonda and Brent Briscoe in the supporting cast, and Raimi's camera style makes the most of Scott B. Smith's articulate screenplay. "A Simple Plan" is neither a happy nor a pretty tale, but it builds uncommon dramatic power as its unpredictable plot unfolds.

* Rated R; contains violence and vulgar language.

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