This is Sam Raimi's first big-studio thriller, and if fans of the cult director's Evil Dead series are poised to lambast him for selling out, then fear not. A Simple Plan is a dark, dense thriller that probes that basest of human emotions, greed, and documents the Exocet-missile effect it has when it tears through the lives of four smalltown Americans. Granted, the sheer splattertastic delirium of Raimi's previous work is absent, but it's replaced by a mature, skilful craftsmanship. He's finally decided to leave the visual pyrotechnic days of his youth behind and just tell a cracking good story.
The premise of Scott B Smith's spine-chilling bestseller is one of those moral dilemmas with instant audience-hookage factor that Hollywood adores: what would you do if you found $4 million? "It's the American Dream in a goddamned gym bag!" Lou (Brent Briscoe) cries triumphantly after stumbling on the greenbacks in the snowy wastes of a Midwestern wilderness (which leaves Raimi spoilt for choice when it comes to haunting imagery).
With cars, boats and scantily-clad babes flashing before the eyes of his companions, Hank (Bill Paxton), a happily married feed-store accountant with a child on the way, briefly chews over the rights and wrongs, before tossing his do-the-right-thing caution to the wind and hatching a simple plan. All they have to do is keep quiet until spring, and they'll get to split the loot three ways. As we're sucked into the temptations of Hank and his buffoon accomplices, Raimi cranks up the same ominous mood of dread that pervades Kubrick's The Shining. And once Hank's missus (Bridget Fonda) finds out about this unexpected windfall, there's no turning back.
After her career-spanning failure to come across as anything but a perky, pert-nosed Californian, you worry whether Fonda can handle the alarming transformation from contented, pie-baking housewife into the Lady Macbeth of the North Woods. But she acquits herself well. Likewise, Paxton, usually a damp squib in his starring roles (Twister, Mighty Joe), is excellent as Hank, a man who feels greater than the dreary, small-town existence he leads, and whose condescending priggishness is mocked by Jacob and Lou.
But it's Billy Bob Thornton, as the dim-wit half of these Mutt-and-Jeff siblings, who really grabs the attention. He injects a welcome vein of humour, but more importantly serves as the audience's emotional touchstone, becoming panicked as the ugliest side of human behaviour reveals itself.
With its desolate snowscapes and random bursts of violence, there is a temptation to lump this with the Coen brothers' Fargo. But Raimi has made something much more intimate than his old friends' offering - and without their deadpan aloofness. A Simple Plan is a fine example of that underrated genre, Perfect Capers Gone Horribly Wrong.
Raimi goes mainstream in a bleak and brooding tale of Midwestern Gothic. With its gripping dramatisation of how finding $4 million is a one-way ticket to death and devastation, it's easily the most accomplished film he's made.