On the eve of Easter Sunday, pushy community theater director Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) and her shy sister Cora (Julianne Moore) are shocked to find that their Aunt Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal) committed suicide. Terrified how this will reflect on the family name, Camille destroys Cookie's suicide note and convinces Cora to help her make it look like a robbery.
Once the police are on the scene, their only suspect is Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), a well-liked local man who also happened to be Cookie's best friend. Everyone is convinced of Willis's innocence, including Cora's estranged daughter Emma (Liv Tyler), who has recently returned to town. A visiting investigator takes over the case and is determined to dig up some of the town's best-kept secrets. As Easter Sunday arrives and Camille's play opens, the truth comes out in ways that no one could have ever imagined.
This film provides examples of:
- AB Negative: The other bloodtype found at the crime scene. It ends up incriminating Camille for Cookie's murder. The police find out that Camille is AB Negative and a hemophiliac.
- Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Camille, Emma, Cora.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The town has only one attorney and he's a little off. He reads Cookie's will while still wearing his costume from Camille's play.
- Crying Wolf: Nobody believes Camille when she tells the truth about Cookie's suicide. Especially after she ate the suicide note which was the one thing that could prove her innocence.
- The Dog Bites Back: Cora gets revenge on Camille.
- Dramatic Drop: When Cookie's death is discovered.
- Eat the Evidence: Camille eats Cookie's suicide note to make her death look like murder.
- Family Relationship Switcheroo: Emma finds out her mother is not Cora, but her "aunt" Camille.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Cookie places a pillow over her face before shooting herself in the head. We see a little blood spatter on the wall and the feathers float in the air.
- The Hecate Sisters: Camille is the Crone, Cora is the Mother, and Emma is the Madien
- Ironic Echo: "Only crazy people commit suicide."
- Laser-Guided Karma: Camille swallowed Cookie's suicide note, which was the one piece of evidence that could have exonerated her. Also, her browbeating turned Cora into such a good actress that everyone believes her instead of Camille.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: Emma discovers that her dreaded Aunt Camille is actually her mother. The police dig up old records that show that Camille nearly died after giving birth...on the same day that Emma was born. Cora provided a blood transfusion that saved Camille's life. Apparently, Camille had moved in with Cora and her husband Donny. One day, Donny disappeared and Camille and Cora took an "extended vacation". When they came back, Cora had a newborn baby.
- Mistaken for Murderer: Willis, somewhat. Practically no one believes he killed Cookie. Camille much more so. Despite having told the truth about what happened, the police don't believe her because she ate the suicide note.
- Only Sane Woman:Emma: What is wrong with people?!
- Pillow Silencer: Cookie lies down in bed and shoots herself through a pillow.
- Quirky Town: The fictionalized version of the real town of Holly Springs, Mississippi presented here is of a Southern town full of Eccentric Townsfolk who do things like put on church pageants or cut work to go fishing.
- School Play: Camille directs a local church production of Salome. It has the same aesthetic as a school production.
- Shrinking Violet: Cora. She's probably been under Camille's thumb her entire life. Though Cora finally stands up to Camille once and for all in the end of the movie.
- Swallow the Key: Camille eats Cookie's suicide note.
- Tuckerization: It doesn't seem like a coincidence that Cora and Emma both have the last name Duvall, since you can easily picture Shelley Duvall playing either role if Robert Altman had made this film back in The '70s.
- Upper-Class Twit: Camille is one.
- Woman Child: Cora is an adult but seems to have the mental age of a shy teenager. It's implied that Camille is so verbally abusive toward her that it's stunted her emotional growth.