This weekend marks the return of one of the great wizards of superhero cinema. We’re talking, naturally, about the magician behind the camera of Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The latest installment in the world’s biggest franchise is also the first movie in nearly a decade from Sam Raimi, the master of horror who reinvented himself as a maestro of big-budget spectacle with his Spider-Man trilogy. The question on the mind of every Evil Dead diehard is how much of the director’s madcap inspiration made it past the suits this time. Has he imprinted some of his gonzo personality on the MCU house style, the way he smuggled operating-room massacres and Bruce Campbell high jinks into the Marvel smashes of another era?
Of course, Raimi’s gifts as a filmmaker go beyond the most iconic hallmarks of his caffeinated style, past the way his camera races and zooms with demonic screwball sentience. For proof, one need only look to an Oscar-nominated highlight of his filmography, made after his wild salad days as a DIY genre maverick but before his emergence as an energetic purveyor of mainstream-studio blockbusters. In the uncommon restraint of the filmmaking, his 1998 adaptation of the Scott Smith best seller A Simple Plan looks less “Raimi-esque” than almost anything else Raimi has directed before or since. It may also be his best movie: a desperate, sad crime thriller that quickens your pulse and breaks your heart in about equal measure.
Because of its wintry Minnesota setting and its focus on flawed men scrambling through an imperfect crime, A Simple Plan initially caught comparisons to Fargo, which came out a couple years earlier. The connection wasn’t entirely invented or superficial. Raimi, after all, had previously worked closely with the Coen brothers, co-scripting their 1994 comedy The Hudsucker Proxy and directing one of their screenplays into the largely forgotten 1985 flop Crimewave. But there’s not terribly much Coen-ish oddball humor in A Simple Plan’s downbeat, fatalistic tale of three ordinary men — levelheaded Hank (Bill Paxton), his intellectually disabled brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and loutish friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) — who stumble upon a duffel bag of presumably stolen money in a downed propeller plane, then hatch an ill-fated plot to keep it. If there’s comedy in this scenario, it’s of a very dry gallows variety, specific to the misfortune of getting wrapped up in a criminal scheme with a couple of dim, loose-lipped accomplices.
Smith, who wrote the screenplay, pulls back on some of the sheer ruthlessness of his source novel. (A horrific late chapter from the book involving a convenience store and a marked bill has been excised entirely.) But he also productively refigures the story into a working-class, small-town tragedy. Lurking beneath the thriller mechanics, like a body concealed by a blanket of fresh snow, is a story of two brothers caught in the shadow of their father’s financial ruin and the class tensions that have emerged between them. Paxton does career-best work as the rationalizing Hank, clinging to his self-image as an honest, decent man while he slips steadily into a morass of conspiracy, blackmail, and murder. And Thornton, who scored a richly deserved Supporting Actor nomination, makes Jacob an all-time tragicomic figure: the pitiable misfit brother who becomes the film’s ravaged conscience, his romantic illusions of a happier life destroyed by the crushing burden of guilt. His last scene, the film’s climax, is deeply wrenching.
For all its prestige trappings, A Simple Plan has roots in the low-budget exploitation classics of Raimi’s early years. Like his Evil Dead films, it’s a Midwest horror story of cause and effect. This time, Pandora’s box comes in the form of a bag of money instead of a book of the dead. And in place of cartoon Grand Guignol mayhem, Raimi offers an escalating moral nightmare. His characters don’t need to become literal demons to unleash their darkest sides; it’s garden-variety greed that reveals their true natures, as they increasingly compromise all their supposed values in pursuit of a monetary windfall they convince themselves they deserve. One might think, additionally, of Raimi’s later Drag Me to Hell, which gave the theme of relentless self-interest as a route to damnation the more literal shape of EC Comics (or Old Testament) comeuppance. This is a morality play at heart.
What makes A Simple Plan such an outlier in Raimi’s body of work is the extent to which he keeps his inner Tex Avery in check. Forgoing the usual exaggerated angles and kinetic camera moves, he often favors simple alternating close-ups and static wide shots. His affinity for slapstick, meanwhile, has been abstracted into body horror — Paxton wrestling with a murder of symbolically scavenging crows, a torso grotesquely launched backwards by a shotgun blast. By not dipping into his usual bag of madman tricks, Raimi shifts some fundamental (and often overlooked) aspects of his artistry into clearer focus. Here we can see how masterfully he tracks the emotional nuances of a tense situation, like the scene where Jacob uses resentment about Hank’s education to lay a trap for Lou. And the clean efficiency of Raimi’s staging benefits the most screw-turning sequences, including an ending that’s downright Hitchcockian in its mounting dread regarding what some characters know and others fatally don’t.
At the time, all of this looked like the first step in a new directorial direction — a possibly permanent pivot away from Three Stooges mania of all genres and toward a run of less zany, more dramatically grounded movies. But though Raimi would dabble a few more times in grown-up pleasures (with a straightforward Kevin Costner baseball movie and a relatively understated supernatural thriller), his career pivoted yet again a few years later, as the massive success of Spider-Man made a Hollywood PG-13 hitmaker out of the guy who got cult famous off a graphic tree-rape sequence. Comic-book movies ultimately might be the best fit for his deranged talents; however well this new Doctor Strange sequel capitalizes on them, Raimi was born to orchestrate colorful, splash-panel lunacy. But A Simple Plan proved he could have had a future in elegant, Shakespearean suspense thrillers, too. Maybe in some far-flung corner of the multiverse, he followed that path instead.
A Simple Plan is streaming on Cinemax.