The temptation is to lump Sam Raimi's first nongenre entry, "A Simple Plan," with the Coen brothers' "Fargo": Both are slices of life about outlandish crimes and Average Joe felons in over their heads, and both blend Grand Guignol and beautiful but foreboding snowscapes, soon to be splattered pink.

The temptation is to lump Sam Raimi’s first nongenre entry, “A Simple Plan,” with the Coen brothers’ “Fargo”: Both are slices of life about outlandish crimes and Average Joe felons in over their heads, and both blend Grand Guignol and beautiful but foreboding snowscapes, soon to be splattered pink. The key differences are in emphasis and tone: “Fargo” is deadpan noir; “A Simple Plan,” with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as Mutt and Jeff siblings, is a more robust Midwestern Gothic that owes as much to Poe as Chandler. For Raimi, whose “Darkman” and “Evil Dead” gorefests remain cult favorites, this is a gamble for more mainstream acceptance. Raimi’s core audience will be disappointed in pic’s brooding tone and relative reserve, while others will be shocked by helmer’s signature mix of mirth and mayhem. Paramount would do well to platform out and take advantage of supportive reviews and word of mouth.

Raimi, working from Scott B. Smith’s novel and script, opens assuredly with ominous echoes of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Fox” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (squawking black birds are a recurring motif). The setting is small-town Minnesota on New Year’s Eve. Hank Mitchell (Paxton) might as well be Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life”: He’s on first-name basis with everyone, has a beautiful, loving wife named Sarah (Bridget Fonda) and a decent job at the local grain mill. Within minutes, the downside of Hank’s Currier & Ives existence intrudes in the form of half-wit brother Jacob (Thornton) and Jacob’s redneck buddy, Lou (Brent Briscoe), both of whom show open contempt for Hank’s tidy existence.

A freak accident leads to an impromptu fox hunt and an even more freakish find in a remote field: the wreckage of a small plane and, behind a decaying corpse, more than $4 million in crisp $100s. The debate over “the right thing to do” doesn’t last long. Unemployed Jacob and Lou see the money as manna from heaven; Hank the moralist initially resists, but is soon won over by the argument that the green, probably from a drug deal gone bad, has no traceable owner. “It’s the American dream in a goddamn gym bag!” exclaims Lou. Hank agrees to a three-way split, but only if they follow his simple wait-and-see plan.

Of course the blabbermouth confederates start spilling the beans even before they clear the field. In the tradition of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” greed, paranoia and plain bad luck also play a role, and the body count begins to mount at an alarming rate. Sarah, Hank’s very pregnant wife, is an almost-too-willing accomplice, proving motherhood and murder aren’t always mutually exclusive. It’s Sarah who comes up with the more sophisticated add-ons to Hank’s plan. Her advice backfires and pulls her nice-guy husband in deeper and deeper.

From Kubrick’s “The Killing” to the Coens’ “Blood Simple” to Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things,” another Toronto fest entry, perfect capers gone horribly, inexorably awry have always kept audiences squirming. But just when we think we’ve seen it all, Raimi offers a few new wrinkles. Hank and Jacob, case studies in deep-seated sibling rivalry, and pic’s ending, bring to mind George and Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.” Hank loves his brother, but also sees him as a lodestone who will probably let enough slip at the local bar to bring the suspiciously friendly town sheriff (Chelcie Ross) knocking.

The plot’s many possibilities always end up back at that snow-covered fuselage, and the audience, like the increasingly troubled Jacob, are made to feel the moral weight of this “victimless” crime.

In the past, Raimi has never allowed himself to stray from full-tilt farce and grisly sight gags, his stock-in-trade. But here, for the first time, he concentrates on character development and complex human emotions. Paxton and the ever-changing Thornton are first-rate as the brothers coping with lingering childhood animosity, even if Thornton in wig and fake overbite sometimes resembles Dana Carvey as Garth. Briscoe is even better as loose cannon Lou, who harbors dangerous resentments towards Hank, who never misses an opportunity to lord it over his accomplices.

Fonda, alas, can do little with a character that goes from normal and nurturing to greedy and conniving seemingly overnight. Ross, the all-smiles sheriff, is always a maddening question mark, and Gary Cole does what he can with a possibly bogus FBI agent who arrives late on the scene.

Raimi films are always strong on the technical side, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Patrizia von Brandenstein’s almost surreal production design underscores economic as well as psychological differences through interior furnishings, and Danny Elfman’s score is at once simple and atavistic, further nailing the man-as-ultimate-predator allegorical elements. Lenser Alar Kivilo, best-known for his fine TV work, explores every sinister nook and cranny in the rural setting; and editors Arthur Coburn and Eric L. Beason correctly keep us guessing as to the severity of the escalating violence. The f/x are subtly integrated.

A Simple Plan

Production

A Paramount release of a Paramount/Mutual Film Co. production in association with Savoy Pictures. Produced by James Jacks, Adam Schroeder. Executive producers, Gary Levinsohn, Mark Gordon. Co-producer, Michael Polaire. Directed by Sam Raimi. Screenplay, Scott B. Smith, based on his novel.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Alar Kivilo; editors, Arthur Coburn, Eric L. Beason; music, Danny Elfman; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; art director, James F. Truesdale; set designer, Rando Schmook; set decorator, Hilton Rosemarin; costume designer, Julie Weiss; sound, (Dolby digital/DTS), Ed Novick; special effects supervisor, John D. Milinac; assistant director, Newt Arnold; second unit director, Doug Lefler; second unit camera, Paul Ryan. Reviewed at the Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 12, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Hank - Bill Paxton Jacob - Billy Bob Thornton Lou - Brent Briscoe Sarah - Bridget Fonda Tom Butler - Jack Walsh Carl - Chelcie Ross Nancy - Becky Ann Baker Baxter - Gary Cole

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