Brian Kessler (Duchovny) works as a journalist who specializes in serial killers. He and his long-term girlfriend, professional photographer Carrie Laughlin (Forbes), are anxious to get away from the midwest and move out west. Since they can't afford to do this on their own, Brian posts an ad on a college bullitin board to find someone else to come along and share the expenses. His ad is answered by Early Grace (Pitt), who, along with his girlfriend Adele Corners (Lewis), also want to leave the area and move to California. Early and Adele are polar opposites to Brian and Carrie; the latter are college educated professionals, whereas the former are incredibly uneducated, impoverished, unemployed, and lowbrow. Unknown to Brian and Carrie, Early is, coincidentally, a serial killer himself. The foursome drive cross-country, making pit stops at famous serial killer locations to help Brian with his upcoming book. Meanwhile, Early leaves a trail of blood in their wake.
- A Storm Is Coming: Played straight shortly before Carrie sees Early on the news and Early stops hiding his crimes from everyone else.
- Auto Erotica: Early and Adele with Carrie taking pictures. Early himself doesn't mind after he spots her doing so.
- Berserk Button: Really, Early? Did you have to hurt Carrie and piss off Brian?
- Companion Cube : The cactus Adele keeps in her purse, named "Lucy." She talks to it. When it's destroyed, she gets another one and names it.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Subverted. Early deliberately guns Adele down after she helped one of Early's victim to escape.
- Freudian Excuse: Parodied, played straight or defied depending on your interpretation. It's never made all that clear, but Early clearly mocks Brian for bringing it up.
- Lack of Empathy: Early in general, especially when he kills Adele, his longtime girlfriend and the only one person who ever loved him.
- Manchild: Adele is incredibly naive and childish. She still plays with a yo-yo, for one, and when Carrie tries to reason with her about Early, she turns up the radio. It is mentioned in the film that Adele was raped as a teenager and spent three months in a coma. She could very likely be brain damaged as a result, which would explain her childish behavior.
- Offscreen Villainy: From what Adele says, her relationship with Early is loaded with Domestic Abuse.
- Psychopathic Manchild: Early has a lot of child-like tendencies, and he's got the psychopathic part down pretty well.
- Rape as Drama: And when Brian finds Carrie chained to a bedpost, it's enough to send him in a rage, postpone the rescue and attempt to kill Early first.
- Replacement Goldfish
- Once Early kills Adele in a fit, he dresses up Carrie in Adele's clothing and treats her similarly (by not allowing her to smoke etc).
- A less terrifying version: when Adele loses her purse-cactus ("Lucy"), she finds another one.
- Serial Killer: Early qualifies as one.
- Shoot the Dog: Early tries to get Brian to do this, and to a cop no less. He even quotes the trope name twice.
- Society Is to Blame: This is largely the attitude of Brian early in the film, as seen when he argues with a colleague at a party early in the film. His experiences over the course of the film do change his mind somewhat.
- Wall Bang Her: Happens between Carrie and Brian while in bed with Early listening in on the other side.