Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is sheriff of a small New Hampshire town. He is a man who lives on the edge of his emotions. As a teenager, he was brutally beaten by his alcoholic father Glen (James Coburn). His wife (Mary Beth Hurt) has left him because of his unresolved rage. His estranged daughter Jill (Brigid Tierney) can't tolerate being with him even for a short visit. His brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) has grown tired of receiving Wade's late-night calls complaining about being bored to death serving as a school crossing guard or moonlighting as a snow plower. A local waitress (Sissy Spacek) who loves him is the only anchor in his troubled life.

Paul Schrader directs this screen adaptation of Russell Banks's 1989 novel. Desperately longing to be a good man, Wade investigates the shooting death of a wealthy hunter and gets involved in a secretive real estate deal being engineered by the town's wheeler dealer (Holmes Osborne). But he bungles both cases and eventually finds himself squaring off against his abusive father. Rarely has the dynamics of family violence been portrayed on the screen with such grim and palpable power.