In rural Georgia, taciturn Hank Grotowski works as a corrections officer at the state penitentiary, and lives with his racist, invalid father Buck and emotionally troubled grown son Sonny. One morning, Buck cuts out a newspaper article about the upcoming execution of African-American prisoner Lawrence Musgrove and adds it to his scrapbook, which contains articles about his time as a prison guard. Buck then complains about the presence of Willie and Darryl, the children of the Grotowskis’ black neighbor, Ryrus Cooper, and Hank aims a shotgun blast over the boys’s heads to frighten them away. As he is about to drive to work, Hank is reprimanded by Ryrus, who states that the children are friends with the unprejudiced Sonny, but Hank is unmoved. At the prison, Hank and his team, which includes Sonny, prepare for the execution, and Hank berates Sonny after he makes a mistake. The guards then take Sonny out for a drink, and Hank explains that the experienced officers always host a party for a guard working his first execution, and that it is called a “monster’s ball.” Hank again cautions his son to be careful, and tries to convey the importance of treating a prisoner with respect during his final hours. Meanwhile, Lawrence is visited by his wife Leticia and young son Tyrell, who has inherited his father's artistic talent. Leticia, weary of visiting Lawrence on death row and of the poverty in which she and Tyrell live, is resigned to Lawrence’s death, but Tyrell is devastated by the thought of never seeing his father again. Lawrence promises to call Tyrell before he dies, but before the execution, Hank informs Lawrence that Warden Velasco has decided not to allow him the privilege of a last phone call. As Sonny and Hank sit with Lawrence in an isolated area of the prison, Lawrence sketches a portrait of Sonny. Sonny is deeply moved by the portrait, and when his emotions threaten to unbalance Lawrence's calm acceptance of his fate, Hank pushes Sonny aside and helps Lawrence to regain control of himself. While Lawrence then sketches Hank, Leticia and Tyrell sit at home, awaiting his call. When Leticia leaves to purchase some whiskey, the overweight Tyrell eats a candy bar from his hidden stash. Upon her return, Letitica finds chocolate on Tyrell’s face and verbally humiliates the boy while slapping him. At the prison, as Hank and Sonny escort Lawrence on his “last walk,” Sonny, unable to bear the stress, suddenly stops to vomit. Another guard takes Sonny’s place and helps Hank to strap Lawrence into the electric chair. After the execution, Hank confronts Sonny and viciously attacks him for failing in his duty. Two guards pull them apart, and the following morning, Hank bursts into Sonny’s bedroom and orders him to move out. Sonny pulls a pistol on Hank, however, and makes him go to the living room, where Buck is sitting. After Hank coldly states that he hates Sonny, Sonny replies that he has always loved him, then shoots and kills himself. On the same day that Hank and Buck bury Sonny in the back yard, next to the graves of their respective wives, Leticia is fired from her job. After the funeral, Hank collects Sonny’s things, puts them in his room and padlocks the door shut, although he carefully preserves the bullet that killed Sonny after prying it out of a chair. Later, Hank goes to his favorite diner for his usual late-night snack of coffee and chocolate ice cream, and meets Leticia, who has just been hired. The next day, Hank resigns from the prison and burns his uniform, despite Buck’s accusation that he is a quitter like his mother, who committed suicide. Later, Hank meets gas station owner Dennis Clements to discuss buying the station. As he is driving home in rainstorm, Hank stops to help Leticia and Tyrell, who has been hit by an automobile. Hank rushes the boy to the hospital, and later is asked by a policeman to take the hysterical Leticia home after Tyrell dies. One afternoon, Hank surprises Ryrus by quietly accepting the Cooper children’s condolences about Sonny’s death. Hank then sees Leticia walking to work and gives her a ride to the diner, where he surprises her by handing her a generous tip. Hank buys Clements’ gas station and ignores the derisive Buck, who advises him to stick to being a prison guard. The next time Hank goes to the diner, he unexpectedly sits at the counter and talks with Leticia while eating his ice cream. He offers to take her home, and at Leticia’s, the couple drink whiskey and discuss their sons. When Leticia shows Hank Lawrence and Tyrell’s drawings, he realizes who she is, but does not reveal his own connection to Lawrence. As Leticia becomes drunk and overwhelmed by grief, she begs Hank to make her feel good, and Hank, desperately needing “to feel again,” feverishly has sex with her. When Hank returns home in the morning, he discovers that Buck fell while trying to bathe, and the older man laments his increasing fraility. Hank then takes Sonny’s truck to the Coopers’ and asks Ryrus to repair it, and the boys to wash it. Leticia at first refuses when Hank offers the truck to her, but he insists that it is what his son would have wanted. The couple become more deeply involved, and one day, Leticia sells her wedding ring to buy Hank a new cowboy hat. When she drops the hat off at Hank’s, however, she meets Buck, and his virulently racist remarks send her fleeing from the house. Hank, who was with Ryrus, walks up as Leticia is leaving, and, knowing that his father must have upset her, begs her to stay, but she drives away. Unable to continue living with Buck, Hank puts him in a nursing home, then systematically cleans and repaints his house to make it brighter. Although Leticia refuses to talk to Hank, even when he tells her that he has sent Buck away, Hank renames the gas station “Leticia’s” and tells Ryrus that she is his girl friend. Soon after, Leticia is evicted, and as she sits on the lawn with her belongings, Hank drives up and helps her move into his home. Hank puts Tyrell’s possessions in Sonny’s room, and although he offers Leticia her own bedroom, she declares that she will be more comfortable sleeping with him. Hank promises to take care of her, and after tenderly making love to her, leaves to buy ice cream. While Hank is gone, Leticia wanders up to Sonny’s room and there finds the sketches of him and Hank drawn by Lawrence. Finally realizing who Hank is, Leticia cries out in pain. Upon Hank’s return, Leticia mutely sits with him on the back steps, from which she can see the graves in the yard. Hank gently feeds her some ice cream and mentions that he stopped at “their” station on the way home. When Hank muses that they are “going to be all right,” Leticia realizes that, together, they can surmount the grief in their lives and remains with him, staring up at the stars.