December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe

Featured attraction

Money changes everything. At least it does for the four main characters of A Simple Plan, a shrewdly engrossing, well-cast and-acted thriller in which sudden access to big cash calamitously corrodes family ties and moral values.

As adapted for the screen by Scott B. Smith from his 1994 novel of the same name, A Simple Plan starts out deceptively simple: Two brothers (Paxton and Thornton, both terrific here) and a pal (Briscoe) discover a

downed small plane in a snowy, wooded field in the rural Midwest. Inside they find a decomposing pilot and a canvas bag containing $4 million in cash. “It’s the American dream in a gym bag,” one of them says. Finders keepers, they decide. Soon, though, the three (along with Fonda, as Paxton’s wife) are arguing over the money, plotting against each other, and bodies are piling up. Think of this as Fargo minus the guffaws and the wood-chipper.

Successfully venturing beyond his former shock-schlock niche, director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead and Darkman) crisply establishes each of Plan’s main players along with the class differences and festering rivalries that exist between them, then skillfully lets it all play out. In the film’s best touch, the character who winds up being Plan’s moral center seems, early on, anything but. (R)

Bottom Line: Impressive find

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