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NOT SO SIMPLE ALL THE INGREDIENTS, BUT SAM RAIMI BOTCHES THE RECIPE

SAM RAIMI'S "A Simple Plan" made a lot of critical 10-best lists at the end of last year. It's a stark, rural Gothic about greed, conniving, stupidity and brotherhood; it's what happens when three small-town guys accidentally pile their truck into the snow and find the remains of $4.4 million in a crashed plane nearby. They hatch a quick plan to keep it -- and then everything goes very wrong. Paranoia, murder and dissension take the place of elation.

Think "Fargo" or "Blood Simple" but almost entirely without humor or irony. In this case, that's not a great thing. For all the stark brilliance of Raimi's direction, pure banality stubbornly clings to this tale through every sudden lurch and twist of the plot. It's the motor oil stain on its overalls. Neither hell nor high water can get it out.

Raimi and the actors keep trying, though. Raimi keeps focusing deeper and deeper on the hard, naturalistic details of snow-covered rural hopelessness and the bonds of brotherhood under duress; the actors keep acting (make that Acting) in confidence that integrity will carry them through. And no matter what they do, it's a ploddingly earnest movie about things that much better movies have been earnest about.

Which makes it -- it seems to me -- one of the most overpraised movies of last year.

When "A Simple Plan" is finished generating a little suspense and a lot of filler, we know why the Coen brothers have smirks on their faces most of the time. Presented this way, this material just doesn't really work. In fact, there's another, much better rural Gothic about hard lives and family dysfunction coming down the road in a few weeks -- Paul Schrader's superb "Affliction," with a great performance by Nick Nolte that he may yet find a way to undermine with inept cloudland politicking.

Both "A Simple Plan" and "Affliction" started out as novels, and both share a novelistic sense of tragic fate. In one case, that's a good thing. In this movie, unfortunately, it's not.

People who have seen too many movies can point to all its classic movie ancestors: John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," the great grizzled Hollywood horselaugh at men and greed and Don Siegel's "Private Hell 36," a cool, obscure but taut study about what happens when big money suddenly and illicitly enters very small lives. Outside of an Ida Lupino festival (she wrote it and appears in it) or the hippest video store in the Western world or a sudden eruption from the Turner Classic Movies network, I have no idea where you could find a way to see "Private Hell 36" now. But if you ever did, you might find that for all its low budget, Howard Duff and Steve Cochran are far more believable (and less actorish) than Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton in "A Simple Plan."

They play brothers. Paxton is the responsible, presentable one with a wife and a job and an occasional higher ambition. Billy Bob is a loser with bad teeth, long, greasy hair and a no-account buddy he hangs out with all the time. They're the three who find the dough. Paxton's wife -- played by Bridget Fonda -- injects her own paranoid cleverness into an already unwieldy partnership. She could outthink all three of them together on their best day, but in this case, that only means she'll outthink herself and the three of them along with her.

It turns out, after all the tangled web is woven by people first practicing to deceive, that Billy Bob isn't quite as simple as we think. It also turns out to have an ending of some power and skewering pitilessness.

But not enough of one, it seems to me, to shake the banality that clings to the movie so stubbornly, as if we should somehow be surprised that such simple people would have a lot of trouble figuring out how to hold on to stolen money.

"A Simple Plan" is a very good film, mind you. A good plan, though, might be to skip it and make sure you see, without fail, its illegitimate brother film among the rural Gothics, "Affliction," when it opens in a few weeks.

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