A Simple Plan has been lauded as the "maturation" of Sam Raimi as a director. Bollocks. This is entertainment journalism codespeak for turning in an efficient, well-crafted, and largely impersonal directorial job. Make no mistake about it -- Raimi does some fine work here -- but it's the kind of work than any talented Hollywood director could do. One can easily imagine Curtis Hanson or Ron Howard doing a first-rate job with this material. But for those of us who enjoyed the gonzo fusion of camera pyrotechnics and pulp intensity that characterized Raimi's previous work (like his 1990 masterpiece, Darkman), it's a disappointment.
Now that I've gotten that out of my system, there's little questioning that A Simple Plan is a well-done blanc noir, that subgenre of dark doings in cold places. Scott E. Smith, the author of the novel, has written a superb screenplay and Raimi handles the intricate turns of the plot with aplomb -- one long sequence which ends up with two bodies dead is this year's finest example of filmic suspense. What he doesn't do quite as well is get even performances out of his actors. Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of a backwoods yokel who emerges as the film's moral center is superb and getting the recognition it deserves. However, Bill Paxton gives a so-so performance as his more "respectable" brother -- the one without a clear moral compass. He has a fine rapport with Thornton, but he tries too hard at times -- especially at the film's climax, when he exercises his facial muscles to the point of comic contortion. And the less said about Bridget Fonda's dismal performance as Paxton's scheming wife, the better.