Bowie, a young man convicted of murder when a teenager, and Chicamaw, an old lag, escape from a Mississippi prison in 1936 and join up with another old lag, T-Dub, who has hired a cab to meet them. They hide out with an acquaintance, who owns a garage, and immediately set to work robbing banks. Here Bowie gets to talk to Keechie, the garageman’s daughter. They next hole up with T-Dub’s sister-in-law Mattie and her children, including her older daughter Lula, the object of T-Dub’s lascivious attention.
Bowie is injured in a car crash, after which Chicamaw guns down an inquisitive officer. He leaves Bowie at the garage, where Keechie takes care of him. They become lovers but Bowie has no intention of turning his back on crime.
Bowie leaves to meet up with the others and they rob a bank, but the trigger-happy Chicamaw shoots and kills a bank clerk.
The robbers split up and Bowie returns to a distraught Keechie. We learn that T-Dub has been killed and Chicamaw recaptured and returned to prison.
After persuading an unwilling Mattie to let the pregnant Keechie stay in a cabin at her motel, Bowie, posing as a sheriff, springs Chickamaw from prison but the latter, while claiming to have merely tied the warden to a tree, has instead shot him dead. Bowie forces Chicamaw out of the car and leaves him at the side of the road to fend for himself.
Returning to the motel cabin he is ambushed by Rangers, who blast the cabin with gunfire, watched by an anguished Keechie, forcibly restrained by Mattie, who has betrayed Bowie.
Bowie’s bloody body is carried out and laid on the mud. In the final scene we see Keechie at the station, ready to take the first train out to find a place where she can have her baby. (In Anderson’s novel, she too is killed by the Rangers.)