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Billy Bob Thornton works as the dim brother

The actor masters hillbilly with ”A Simple Plan”

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As Billy Bob Thornton nervously nestled into his seat at the Shrine Auditorium two years ago, he was an unknown quantity — a mystery man. Sure, he’d been around for more than a decade as a screenwriter and character actor, slowly clawing his way in from Hollywood’s shadowy fringes. But it was only with his Oscar-nominated star turn as Sling Blade‘s french-fried-tater-eatin’ naïf Karl Childers that we finally got a handle on him.

Or did we? After watching Thornton disappear like quicksilver into the depths of Jacob Mitchell’s deceptively complex persona in A Simple Plan, it’s safe to say that at this year’s Oscars, he’ll be as big an enigma as ever.

In Sam Raimi’s chilling crime drama Jacob, his role-model brother, Hank (Bill Paxton), and drinking buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble across a downed plane containing $4.4 million. At the beginning, Thornton slyly convinces us that Jacob is a dim-witted loser — an American-gothic hybrid of Elmer Fudd’s brains and Neil Young’s wardrobe. But belying the greasy, matted-down hair, the chunky specs held together by silver duct tape, and the runt-like physique, which Thornton achieved by shedding close to 40 pounds, is the real Jacob — the most unlikely voice of reason since Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

”I’ve seen plenty of films where people committed crimes, but I didn’t understand it from the inside out — I didn’t make the decision with them,” Raimi marvels. ”With Billy Bob, I felt I knew this character, and I had become a sinner with him.” So did we all. In Thornton’s hands, Jacob is the moral fulcrum of A Simple Plan: He’s the first to realize (unlike his putatively smarter brother) that they’ve jimmied open an ethical Pandora’s box they’ll never be able to jam shut again, and he’s the only one to understand that the trio’s dreams of Easy Street have inevitably set them on the road to a violent and tragic end.