Set in and around Santa Rosa, California in 1949, the film follows Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a suburban barber, married to Doris (Frances McDormand), a bookkeeper with a drinking problem. Doris' boss at Nirdlinger's, the local department store, is "Big Dave" Brewster (James Gandolfini), a loud, boisterous man, who constantly brags about his combat adventures in the Pacific Theatre during World War II where he claims to have served as a crack infantry trooper. Ed, by contrast, was rejected from the army due to flat feet and shows little emotion. Ed suspects that Doris and Big Dave are having an affair. The barber shop where Ed works is owned by his brother-in-law Frank, a good-natured man of Italian ancestry who talks incessantly. A customer named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) tells Ed that he's a businessman looking for investors in a new technology called dry cleaning. Ed decides he wants to invest and schemes to get the money by anonymously blackmailing Big Dave for the $10,000 he needs. Big Dave, not suspecting anything, confides in Ed that he's being blackmailed, asking for guidance. Ed advises him to pay. Dave delivers the money without seeing Ed make the pick-up.