Bill Paxton has had the fortune of finding his way into a string of blockbusters since his critically praised performance as a rural sheriff in 1991's "One False Move." But the all-American actor -- whose resume includes roles in "Twister," "Apollo 13," "Titanic" and "Aliens" -- was turned on to Scott Smith's best seller, "A Simple Plan," not by any big Hollywood producer but by his father.
Smith's story, a disturbing tale of bad deeds done by three Midwestern men corrupted by greed, kept Paxton up nights while on location for the filming of "True Lies."
"It's a damning treatise," says Paxton, a Texas native who speaks in a Southern-surfer drawl. "You keep reading and reading, and you empathize with this protagonist Hank Mitchell, and you hope he's gonna get away with it or get out of it without being caught. But he keeps making these bad decisions."
The story, adapted to the screen by its author, was so impressive that Paxton figured he'd be passed over in favor of a bigger star. "My dad said, 'You're born to play this thing,'" says Paxton. "I said, 'Dad, it's great, but it's breaking my heart. I'll never get to play that part. It's gonna be sold to the highest bidder. There's going to be some heavyweights lining up for that, like Nick Cage and Johnny Depp.'"
Paxton eventually got his wish, landing the lead role of the thoughtful, tortured Hank opposite an Oscar-worthy turn by Billy Bob Thornton as Hank's brother, Jacob (the two had worked together on "One False Move") and Bridget Fonda as Hank's quietly scheming wife, Sarah.
Sam Raimi, who eventually assumed the director's chair, initially passed on the project. John Dahl ("Rounders"), John Boorman ("Hope and Glory," "Deliverance") and Ben Stiller ("The Cable Guy") in turn accepted and declined the job. "Two weeks before it was set to begin, the studio called and said it was put on hold," says Paxton. "I thought, 'Great, I finally get the part I'm dreaming about, and I don't get to do it.'"
Raimi was an unlikely choice to helm the film. The director is best known to cult audiences intrigued by his freaky camera work and extra helpings of gore offered in the "Evil Dead" series and the comic-book-inspired "Darkman."
"Everyone thinks this is strange for him because he's known for all those other films that have called for him to use a much wilder visual style," says Paxton. "But he's a very unassuming and very understated guy. He saw that this was a piece that called for a much more restrained visual style."
Raimi's restraint has paid off with a gorgeously photographed film driven by quietly intense and empathetic performances. Hank, Jacob and Jacob's beer-guzzling friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble onto the wreckage of a plane on a freezing New Year's Eve in rural Minnesota. A dead pilot and $4.4 million in cash are buried inside.
"It's the American dream in a goddamn gym bag," exclaims Lou, who suggests that the three keep what they found. A nightmare ensues as various plans unfold and unravel. Sarah offers misguided advice, long-buried family secrets are unearthed, and the bodies begin to pile up. The horror -- 180 degrees from the bloody comic mayhem of "Very Bad Things" and its kin -- is accentuated by the stark, snow-covered vistas and the American-heartland setting. Imagine the dark side of Frank Capra in a modern setting.
"I'm almost like George Bailey, and you see this extended family `among the townspeople`," says Paxton. "But then you scratch under the surface, and you see these people as they're corrupted and they're put into this situation, and the way these events just spiral out of control. Nobody knows how they'd bear up under these situations. You don't know your character until it's been fully tested.
"It's the corruption of these basically good people, to show that nobody is above temptation. All of us have this incredible potential for good and evil. Who knows what will come out in different circumstances? We like to think as the ship slides into the Atlantic," he concludes, "we're going to quietly face our deaths with some dignity."