Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton) is a man caught between two worlds: the one which existed before he was incarcerated, and the one into which he's released 22 years later.
A yellowing newspaper photograph of 16-year-old convenience store clerk Abner Easley--the boy Manual killed in a robbery gone terribly wrong --has stared down at him from the wall of his cell for more than two decades. Manual feels that his life sentence is just and deserved, so when--much to his surprise and even somewhat against his will--he's released, the aimless boy is now a lost man.
Floating through the barely familiar wintry landscape of his childhood neighborhood, Manual is like a ghost hungry for atonement, seemingly alienated from everything except for his terrible memories of the day which changed not only his life, but that of so many others as well. He glides through this strange new world a man apart, his wraithlike aspect and deeply formal, barely articulate manner guaranteed to insure solitude.
Almost by accident--or fate--Manual is drawn into the life of an inner city community center run by the relentlessly tough, caring and enigmatic pastor Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman). Miles offers Manual work in return for a room, and once again, Abner Easley's photo is prominently placed, reminding Manual to come to terms with his crimes, his past, his future, himself.
While Manual tries to confront his past, Sofia Mellinger (Kirsten Dunst) is unable to deal with her present. A beautiful and privileged wreck of a young woman bent on self-destruction, she constantly requires Manual's reluctant assistance to survive the short trip from the hip nightclub across the street to the safety of the community house next door.
Ultimately, Manual seeks to reconcile his painful past when he pursues a relationship with Adele Easley (Holly Hunter), the older sister of the boy he killed. Yet he finds himself unable to confess his true identity to her, especially as their relationship d