NOTE: One more great spoiler was sent in by Marcus
The film begins with Mr. Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) standing in a bathroom, looking at himself in the mirror. He says a prayer, and his alter ego Marshall (William Hurt) tells him that he’s been a good boy for a long time, and that he knows he wants to do this. Earl gets himself together and goes outside, where we see that he’s at a banquet. A man introduces Earl as being man of the year for work, and he accepts his award. Earl gives his speech and blows a kiss to his wife, Emma (Marg Helgenberger). On the drive home, Emma says that the night was almost perfect, and expresses disappointment that their daughter Jane didn’t attend. Earl says that she has midterms and is probably studying hard in her dorm. Marshall appears in the backseat, and urges Earl to stake-out a dancing couple, since they would be in class right now (by the way, Earl’s conversations with Marshall are entirely in his head, and whenever someone’s around while they talk, Mr. Brooks appears silent). Earl tells Emma that the dinner was great, but the desert wasn’t enough for him. They stop by a shop and get some ice cream. Emma doesn’t notice that Earl’s focus is across the street, watching a dance class through the windows. When they get home, Emma prepares for bed when Earl tells her that he’ll be in their studio, working on something. Emma tells him that if she’s asleep when he gets back, that he should wake her.
Earl goes to his studio and puts on a furnace. He then takes out a pair of boots and puts on a black jacket. He drives to the house where the dancing couple lives, and we learn that it’s been two years since he’s murdered someone. He says his prayer and opens the front door, using a device to unlock the security chain from the inside. He carefully walks inside and then he hears the couple having sex. He hesitates a bit, but Marshall tells him that he wants to see what they’re doing in the other room. Wearing gloves, he closes a bag over his hand that’s holding a silenced pistol. He then peers into the bedroom, where he sees the woman riding her lover. Slowly, he enters the room and watches the couple having sex. Earl says hello, and the couple freak out. He shoots both the man and the woman through the forehead, and then gets off upon reliving their deaths. Marshall is happy, but grows worried once he sees that the curtains are open. Earl closes the curtains, and we see him later driving back to his house. When he gets out of his car, he only steps on a plastic sheet, and then takes off his boots (where we see that he also had on some loafers). He vacuums his car, wraps his clothes and boots in the plastic, and burns them. Earl crouches down fully naked in front of the furnace, looking at photographs he took of the corpses. Marshall says that he knows the rules, and makes Earl burn the pictures. He then tells Earl to go wake up Emma and have sex with her.
The next day, Earl goes to an Alcohol Anonymous meeting, but since he’s really not an alcoholic he goes there to try to get some help for his psychotic tendencies. Marshall hates going there, but Earl is determined to stop killing. The murdered couple is found, and detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore) arrives at the crime scene. She sees that the bodies have been rearranged, with the woman’s head resting in the man’s crotch. The police find two bloody fingerprints on the lamp, one from each victim. Atwood realizes that this is the work of The Thumbprint Killer. She also realizes that the killer vacuumed the house before leaving, and took the bag from the vacuum when he left. The closed curtains also intrigue her, but no one witnessed anything. When she goes outside, a man serves her divorce papers, which upsets her. At work, we see Earl showing a businessman around his box factory. He gets a call from his secretary that his daughter has arrived. Earl excuses himself and goes to his office, where an anxious man waits outside. The secretary tells Earl that his daughter arrived in a taxi, and has her belongings with her. As he enters his office, the anxious man tries to get his attention but the secretary tells him to sit back down. Earl hugs his daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker), who has some interesting news for him she has decided to drop out of college. Earl wants to discuss this as a family, but Jane wants to talk about it now. She wants to come work for him, so that if anything happens to him the company will stay in the family. Jane takes off Earl’s glasses and wears them, which agitates him a little. He tells his daughter that he thinks she should go back to school, and asks where her car is. Jane says that a friend is going to drive it to her. The secretary interrupts them, since the anxious man outside urged her to give Earl an envelope, saying it’s very important. While talking to his daughter, Earl opens the envelope and sees pictures of himself at the murdered couple’s house, closing the curtains after he killed them. Earl tells his secretary to get a cab for his daughter, and to tell the man to meet him in the conference room.
On his way to meet the man, Marshall tells Earl not to worry so much, since the man came directly to him and not to the police. He meets with the man, who calls himself Mr. Smith (Dane Cook). Smith says that he knows Earl is the Thumbprint Killer, and that he has more copies of the photographs. Marshall tells Earl that the copies are in his security box at his bank, and that Smith has the key in his key chain. Apparently, the dancing couple liked to have sex with the curtains open, and Smith has been taking pictures of them to get off on it. From the way the pictures were taken, Earl already knows where Smith lives (in the apartment building across the street). Smith says that he doesn’t know what he would’ve done if he didn’t know who Earl was, but because his picture was in the newspaper for being man of the year; he has decided to come forward with a bizarre proposition. He will not go to the police, and he doesn’t want money all he wants is to go with Earl the next time he murders someone, since he got such a rush from watching him the other night. Marshall laughs at this, saying that they should just kill him. Earl however entertains the idea and tells Smith that they’ll meet tomorrow night to kill someone. Before he leaves, Earl warns Smith that killing can be addictive. Later that night, Earl goes to Smith’s house and makes a copy of his security box key. He then wakes him up, who’s completely off-guard and scared silly. Earl tells him that tomorrow he will bring all the copies of the pictures with him, along with the memory card for his camera. Knowing how easy it will be for Earl to kill him, Smith agrees. Earl leaves, and then Smith turns on all the lights in his apartment, scared of being in the dark.
The next morning, Earl wakes up to see his wife and daughter arguing. It turns out that the real reason Jane dropped out of college is because she’s pregnant. The father is a married man with kids, and wants nothing to do with her. Earl recommends having an abortion, which upsets Jane. He then tells her that they’d love to have a grandchild, and will help raise the baby if she decides to keep it. Elsewhere, Atwood goes to her divorce hearing. Jesse Vialo (Jason Lewis), her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and his attorney (Reiko Aylesworth) are demanding 1.5 million dollars from the settlement. Atwood refuses, and Jesse’s lawyer tells her that Thorton Meeks, aka the Hangman killer, has escaped from prison. He swore revenge on Atwood, who put him away, and Jesse could be in danger in order for Meeks to get to her. Atwood says that she hopes Jesse gets killed by a truck, which makes his lawyer call for a restraining order against her. That night, Atwood goes back to the crime scene and imagines what the killer did, not noticing that she’s being followed by a woman. She trips over a phone cord inside, and wonders how the killer managed to not trip on anything. Again, the curtains intrigue her, so she goes across the street to the apartment building and knocks on every door, asking if anyone has seen anything. As she knocks on Smith’s door, he’s on his way out to meet Earl with the photographs. He says that he takes photos as a hobby, and that he’s on his way to meet someone. He says that he didn’t see anything, and Atwood gives him her card in case something jolts his memory.
Earl drives out to meet Smith, who’s being drenched in the pouring rain. Earl sees him across the way, and ponders actually going through with it. Marshall tells him that he obviously won’t go to the cops, and tells him to honk the horn to get his attention; hopefully he’ll get killed trying to cross the street. Marshall and Earl laugh about this and then honk the horn. As predicted, Smith is almost hit by a car. He gives Earl the envelope with the pictures and memory card, but he already knows that all the copies aren’t there. Smith has decided to hold on to them, due to the position he’s in. Earl says that he was through with killing people until Smith entered his life, and so he doesn’t have a victim picked out for the night. He tells Smith that he’ll kill anyone he chooses, but he can’t pick someone he knows (since it’s too close and will surely get him caught). They drive around, looking for a potential victim, when they get cut off by a truck driver. Pissed off, Smith chooses the driver to be the victim, and so they follow him to a convenience store. Earl disappoints Smith by not going through with the killing that night. Instead, he has Smith memorize the license plate of the truck and tells him to find out everything he can about the driver. Smith says that he already has it memorized, but when Earl tests him he fails. He has him write it down, and then Smith mentions that Atwood is looking for him, giving Earl her card. Atwood intrigues Marshall and Earl, and they decide to find out more information about her. They hack into the police database online, and find out everything about her. They see that she’s going through a divorce, see the Hangman Killer’s mug shot, and see that she has over sixty million dollars. They wonder why she’s working as a detective if she has all this money. Earl goes to Jane’s room, kisses her head, and tells her that he’s happy she’s home.
Somewhere along here Atwood’s superior wants to take her off the Thumbprint Killer’s case, since she’s going through a divorce and has the Hangman Killer after her. Atwood refuses, and also refuses to have back-up. She meets up with her attorney (Aisha Hinds) to talk about the divorce. Atwood wants her to delay the proceedings for as long as possible. The attorney leaves after having coffee, and Atwood walks down the street. She’s tackled into a van by Thorton Meeks (Matt Schulze), and it speeds off with the side door still open. He grabs her gun and points it at her face. Meeks beats her up and promises to rape her in front of his girlfriend, who’s driving the van. He tries to cuff Atwood, but she gets the upper hand and kicks him away. She then grabs the girlfriend’s hair, which causes the van to swerve around. A car hits them, and Atwood is ejected from the van, landing through the windshield of a taxi. Meeks and his girlfriend drive off.
That night, Earl again meets with Smith and they again follow the truck driver. He goes to the same store and they stake him out in the parking lot. Smith gets excited, thinking about how the driver will never do anything he wants because he’ll be dead. As they wait in the car, Meeks and his girlfriend pull into the parking lot. Earl and Marshall recognize him from the mug shot in Atwood’s file, and remember that he’s the Hangman Killer. Earl remembers their license plate, and tells Smith that they’ll have to push back the killing again. Marshall sees that Smith is upset, so Earl pulls over and talks with him. Smith thinks that he’s backing out of their deal, but Earl says that killing someone is like falling in love. He didn’t feel that Smith would get much excitement from killing the truck driver, and so they will delay again until the time and victim are right. Meanwhile, Atwood gets her head stitched up and her superior assigns detective Hawkins (Rub Santiago-Hudson) to be her partner for the duration of the investigation.
Two detectives come around to Earl’s house, one being from around Jane’s college town. Earl asks Emma if Jane told her that a murder happened at her school, but she says no. The detectives have recommended that Jane gets a lawyer, since she’s a suspect. The police question Jane about the murder and it’s clear to Earl that she is the killer. Marshall knew that there was more to her dropping out of school, and Earl breaks down. He doesn’t know what to do and thinks that his sickness has passed on to his daughter. The cops described in graphic detail the hatchet murder at her dorm, which upset Earl greatly. Marshall tells him that she got sloppy; leaving the hatchet at the scene of the crime, and that all this police attention is not good for them. At work, Earl seriously considers giving up Jane to the police, since she could get help while in prison and they’ll help raise her baby. He tells his secretary that he’s going home for the day, and that he will be unreachable. Earl goes to his studio, grabs one of his fake IDs, and flies to Jane’s college town in disguise with fake hair. Atwood has a hunch that Smith knows more than he’s letting on, so she follows him with Hawkins all day. At a parking structure, when Smith goes to his car, he sees that someone has put a newspaper in his steering wheel. It’s from Earl, and he has circled letters to send him a message. He apologizes for canceling their meeting that night, but they will meet tomorrow at the same time. He also circled “don’t be stupid”, which makes Smith take out his frustration on his car. Atwood comes up and asks him more questions about the murder across from his apartment. She tries to catch him lying, but he picks up on it. She says that she feels like he has something to tell her. Smith considers giving Mr. Brooks up, but he sees the “don’t be stupid” message again and doesn’t tell her anything.
Atwood and Hawkins leave pissed off, but get some good news the last person to come into contact with the Hangman Killer was his chiropractor, and they have been granted permission to search his home. They bust into his apartment but don’t find anyone. The detectives then see a blood-splattered door. When they open it, numerous alarm clocks are going off. Hawkins turns off the clocks and closes the door, which causes the chiropractor’s corpse to come swinging down at them. He’s hanged from the ceiling, strapped to a chair, stabbed all over his body with needles, and has a note on his chest which reads “ha ha ha”. Elsewhere, we see Earl in disguise leaving from Jane’s college. He has murdered someone exactly the same way Jane did, leaving the hatchet behind. As he makes his way to his car, he takes off his disguise and talks with Marshall again. The killing has made him sick, and this time he really wants to stop. Earl plans to make Smith kill him, which doesn’t make Marshall very happy. Earl tries to drive off, but Marshall appears in the street and slams on the hood. He tells him fuck you and lets him drive off. Earl goes back home, and tells Jane that the cops think there’s a serial killer on campus. Since she was home during the murder, she’s no longer a suspect. She’s happy, though confused, and has decided to keep the baby.
Earl writes out a letter for Emma and Jane, saying that he doesn’t want them to see him deteriorating from his disease, so they will never see him again. Marshall still doesn’t like his plan, but Earl will go through with it. Before meeting with Smith, Earl tracks down where the Hangman Killer and his girlfriend are staying. Earl and Smith go to the victim’s house, where Smith is clearly nervous. They walk through the apartment but then hear people coming in. It’s Jesse and his lawyer, who are sleeping together. Turns out they are trying to get a hell of a lot of money from Atwood for the divorce, even though Jesse was cheating on her. They start to have sex when Smith pees himself, staining the floor. He moves around, which raises the guard of the lawyer. Earl and Smith come out of hiding, and execute the two. Meanwhile, Atwood gets a call from one of the residents at the apartment building she went to, who tells her that the dancing couple liked to have sex with the curtains open and that the night they were murdered, he saw camera flashes from behind the curtain. They recommend that she talks with Smith, so she goes back to Smith’s apartment and finds that it’s completely empty. All that’s left are some cables, and a piece of paper with a moving address on it. Hawkins surprises her, and tells her that he has to bring her in for questioning. Police have found Jesse and his lawyer shot dead, and she’s a suspect. Before he can cuff her, she beats him up and tells him that she’s going to Smith’s new address. Driving down the highway, Smith is overexcited with glee about the killings. Marshall can smell that Smith has brought his own pistol, and predictably he holds Earl at gunpoint. He tells him to take the next exit ramp, but Earl refuses. He won’t shoot him yet, since he’s speeding and if they crash it’ll kill them both. Instead, Earl tells Smith that he actually wants to die and that if he wants it done right, he should do exactly what he tells him. He also mentions that since Smith left his DNA back at the crime scene, the police are going to think that he’s the Thumbprint Killer.
Atwood goes to Smith’s moving address, which is a sleazy hotel. However, when she arrives, she sees that it’s really where the Hangman Killer and his girlfriend are. She gets in a shootout with them, shooting the Hangman Killer in the shoulder and chest. Atwood shoots out the lights in the hallway and makes her way towards them, shooting the girlfriend in the leg. The two try to make their way down the stairs, but Atwood shoots the Hangman Killer in the chest again and he goes down. He then shoots his girlfriend through the head, and blows his own brains out. Elsewhere, Earl tells Smith that he’s driving them to a graveyard that he owns. Once there, they’ll find an empty grave and Smith will kill him. He’ll put enough dirt on him to cover his body up, and the next day a coffin will be placed over him, guaranteeing that his body will never be found. When they get to the cemetery, it’s clear that Smith might not have what it takes to kill him. They find an empty grave, and Earl stands over it (so that when he’s shot his body will fall right in). He really hopes that Smith will have it in him to kill him, and even closes his eyes to make it easier for him. Smith pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. It turns out that Earl damaged the firing pin in his gun, rendering it useless. He brought another gun for Smith to use should he still want to die, but as he closed his eyes he changed his mind. He wants to help raise Jane’s baby. Smith continues to try and shoot him, but nothing happens. Earl then hits him in the chest and head with a nearby shovel, and brutally slits his throat. Very painfully, Smith dies and Earl shoves his corpse into the grave.
Next, we see Earl reading a newspaper in a cafe. It says that Smith is the Thumbprint Killer, and the Hangman Killer was killed. Marshall is a bit disappointed that they don’t get credit for their killings, but Earl is perfectly fine with getting away scot-free. His attention turns to someone’s purse, hanging from a booth, and he steals the red phone inside. Earl goes to a rooftop and calls Atwood on the cell phone, asking her why she’s a cop. She thinks that it’s Smith, but he sounds different. He says that he’ll tell her where he is if she answers his question. Atwood says that it’s because her father wanted a boy, and was disappointed to have a girl. She wanted to prove herself to her father. She then asks him where he is, but Earl just says that he’s on a rooftop. He hangs up and drops the phone to the ground. Atwood realizes that the person she just talked to wasn’t Smith. Earl goes home and kisses Jane goodnight. She suddenly turns around and stabs him in the neck with a pair of scissors. Earl flails around the room, splattering blood everywhere. He tries to touch Jane, but she backs away from him. Earl dies, and Jane puts on his glasses. She reaches out to touch his hand…and then he wakes up. It was a nightmare. Emma comforts Earl, and he says his prayer that he recites before killing someone.