Edmond Burke is a middle-aged Seattle businessman who visits a tarot fortune teller on the way home. She claims Edmond "is not where [he] belongs." He decides to make changes in his life, beginning by leaving his wife. At a bar, Edmond tells a fellow patron he hasn't had sex in a while and that marriage took away his masculinity. The man gives him the address to a strip club, where Edmond is kicked out by a bouncer for not paying for a stripper's drink. Now even more sexually frustrated, Edmond goes to a peep show; having never been to such a place before, he is disappointed when he realizes that he isn't allowed to have actual sex with the performer.
Next he goes to a white-collar bordello, but can't afford a hooker. Edmond needs money, so he plays a three-card Monte game with a street dealer. When Edmond accuses the dealer of cheating, the dealer and his shill beat him up and steal his money. Edmond becomes enraged by what he sees as the contempt, prejudice and greed of society. He pawns his wedding ring in exchange for a knife. He is approached by a pimp who offers Edmond a "clean girl" and lures him to an alleyway, where the pimp attempts to mug him. In a wild rage, Edmond attacks the pimp with his knife while hurling racial slurs at him. He leaves him wounded and possibly dying in the alley.
Suddenly euphoric, Edmond enters a coffee shop and tells a young waitress, Glenna, his newfound worldview of instant gratification. They end up having sex at her apartment. Glenna likes him at first, but she is soon frightened by his increasingly erratic behavior and calls for help. An enraged Edmond slashes her to death, blaming her own insecurity for her murder. On a subway train, he has an angry confrontation with a female passenger. Edmond comes across a church service where a minister preaches about respect and faith. Edmond feels the urge to preach about his own experiences, and as he stands in the doorway of the church, the woman from the subway recognizes him and calls into the street for the police. The responding officer pats Edmond down to find the knife in his front jacket pocket. Edmond is arrested.
In jail, Edmond begins to appreciate the security of his old life, but it is too late; the police have reason to believe that the knife found in Edmond's pocket may be the weapon used in Glenna's murder. The interrogating officer bluntly asks Edmond why he killed Glenna, to Edmond's shock and disbelief. He is sent to prison for her murder. There, Edmond is paired with a black cellmate. He likes prison because it is simple. He speaks of how he has always feared black people, but now that he shares a room with one, he can finally feel a bond. The indifferent cellmate then forces Edmond to perform oral sex on him. Edmond tells a prison minister what happened, but goes off on a tangent, shouting that God has been unfair to him. When the minister asks why he murdered the waitress, he has no answer.
Years pass. Edmond has cut connections with the outside world, refusing to see visitors. He talks to his cellmate, with whom he has developed a friendly relationship, about the human ego and how life should not be taken for granted. He concludes that by conquering his fears, he might lead a better life. Both men ponder the afterlife. Edmond then goes to sleep comfortably alongside his cellmate. True to the tarot fortune teller's words, Edmond might well have found the place where he belongs.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 45% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 69 reviews. Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 61 out of 100, meaning Generally favorable reviews, based on 21 reviews.
The New York Times film critic Stephen Holden said William H. Macy "is perfectly cast", calling him "a master at playing sticks of human dynamite in mild-mannered camouflage" and that he gives the "nerviest screen performance of his career." Holden said the film is a faithful adaptation of the one-act play from 1982, saying "Its taunting insistence that everyone is racist, voiced in abrasive, staccato Mamet-speak, leaves you feeling battered and vaguely guilty." Holden wrote, "As in much of Mr. Mamet's work, there is a quality of adolescent nose-thumbing, as though it all might be a cruel practical joke designed solely to make us squirm." Holden said viewers may love or hate the film but that it was certainly unforgettable.