Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), a single mom works at a day care at Armstrong housing project in Dempsy, New Jersey. Brenda lives in the small blue-collar town of Gannon, which is connected to Dempsy, but Gannon is considered the better of the two communities. After work, Brenda walks into the emergency room with blood all over her hands, and the Dempsy Police are called to the hospital. Police detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the case. Brenda tells detective Council that she was carjacked and assaulted by a black man in the housing projects. After some time goes by, Brenda finally breaks down and tells Council that her four-year old son, Cody, was asleep in the back seat of the car. The two communities begin to search for the kidnapped child. However, the carjacking suspect is presumed to come from the projects, and racial tension comes to the surface, pitting the two towns, and the white cops and black cops against each other. Douglas Young (the-movie-guy)
(...continued by KrystelClaire)
Brenda has to be taken to hospital. She is hysterical, and her two hands are bloodied and wounded, presumibly because the male criminal pulled her out of the car violently and dragged her through the leaves and twigs dirty ground.
It also happens that Brenda used to be a drug addict five years ago, and that her brother is also a cop. Danny Martin (Ron Eldard) arrives to the hospital from work and produces a caption photograph of the little boy, Cody (Marlon Sherman). She speaks of a mysterious young black man who tapped on the windowglass of her car. Lorenzo knows that the case has potential to escalate out of control because of the race stint of the case. Some of his workmates even deem Lorenzo unfit to lead the case to a good end, because of his diabetes and his unsharp mind.
Brenda doesn't seem to take stress well. She was distracted at hospital by the ramblings of several patients (Colman Domingo & Teodorina Bello) in the same room as her. She asks another cop (Jason Furlani) if he's got a child, and he shows a picture he's carrying with him inside of his uniform cap. When pressured by Lorenzo, Brenda seems to be unable to take control of her own emotions, and she slaps herself repeatedly.
The area is cordoned off. A man tries to escape from a window, and he eventually falls down. There is chaos everywhere, the police are unable to stop the complaining tenants, and there are questions again of the abilities of Lorenzo to remain detached in the case.
Lorenzo accompanies Brenda almost everywhere, even to her home, to check her out. Outside her home, she finds two cars parked, which worries him, so he goes to check them out. Marie (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) says that the matter may escalate out of control, because Brenda was almost a public figure, well-known, cherished and respected in the community, so there's need for the case to be wrapped up nicely and fast. Outside, Lorenzo leaves with the keys of a drunk young man who was about to drive off. The black car follows him in the night with two women in it. Lorenzo talks to them. Karen Collucci (Edie Falco) belongs to an organization who looks for disappeared children. Lorenzo knows that they found the body of a boy, Cory Baker, who had disappeared in another case, so he takes their card.
Lorenzo visits his brother, Jason Council (Dorian Missick), who's doing time in jail. He's got himself a tattoo of Tupak, the rapper. They joke about not wanting to have Tyger Woods tattooed in his arms.
Other cops, like Lt Gold (Peter Friedman) are going around looking in people's homes almost randomly, which creates more angst and anger in the residents. Lorenzo thinks that nobody in the projects knows anything, in spite of the kidnapping having happened in the woods nearby. Another possibility which is going around is that Brenda is faking everything. She hurt or killed the child and now she's playing the suffering distraught mother, but Lorenzo doesn't really believe in that possibility, as she has looked into his eyes and showed to him how much she's suffering, as he tells to another cop. This other cop tells Lorenzo to pass the case to him, unless he gets burnout.
An angry tennat (Gil Deeble) acknowledges Lorenzo "Hey, man, whacha gonna do about this?". Lorenzo sets to work but doesn't answer.
Danny is present when Lorenzo tries to question Brenda again. Danny thinks that Brenda may have started to use drugs again, which she denies strongly. When Danny looks at her with skepticism, she starts to bang on a wall with her bandaged swollen hands. Danny leaves, freaked out. Marie and Lorenzo stay with calmed-down Brenda.
She puts on her handsets to isolate herself. There is chaos on the projects, with media asking questions, angered tenants and crazy bystanders. Brenda keeps on being vague about what happened that night, so Lorenzo sits down and asks her whether she killed her son. She looks a bit crazy, and as though she were overacting. She says that having her baby made her a million times better. Lorenzo tells her that he believes in god, and that there is something in the back of her head. Lorenzo tells her that he won't rest until he finds her son.
When Brenda comes back to her primary school classroom, all the children hug her. She says that she's okay, and she shows her pupils the photograph of Cody. Meanwhile, Lorenzo asks the substitute teacher about Felicia (Aunjanue Ellis). Lorenzo learns that she didn't work the day of the kidnapping at all. Cheryl Willis (Herself) is on TV, sending a public message asking for the public to give information anonymously; it is also Danny's plea.
The cops are going door-to-door asking people about that night, and Rafik (Fly Williams III) runs away. A mother of one of Brenda's pupils tells her to stay away from her child. Back at the police station, the cops hit Rafik with no particular threat to them. Vicky (Haneefah Wood) and Doreen (Portia) get hysterical when they see that. Rafik only crime looks to have been possession and marijuana.
His superiors want Lorenzo out of the case, but he wants to go on with it, believing that there is a lot Brenda is holding back about what happened that night. He asks Karen for help while Danny keeps on appearing on TV. He asks her whether she has been to Freedomland, and she questions back if they still look for rookies there.
Karen talks to Brenda in front to Marie, Louis, Elaine (Donna Cutugno) and Tina (Genevieve Hudson-Price). Brenda doesn't look to be interested in talking to them and refuses to speak of that night. Only 24 hours have passed by at this point. In the area, there are four places where the child could be, but three of them have been eliminated (a park, a gold course, a cemetery), as there is no place to hide there and they have all been checked out. That only leaves them Freedomland, an old estate children's home behind some woods, which was shut down in the 1950's. They are all going there to check it out, including Brenda and Lorenzo.
There are leaflets being passed with photographs of Cody Martin. Brenda doesn't want to enter the place. A priest (Philip Bosco) is telling people to enter Freedomland and search the place for Cody's body. There are dogs and hundreds of volunteers with sticks. Elaine and Tina tell their stories, and they are doing that because of sympathy. They look among the debris inside the main building. The place is not too safe, so Lorenzo tells everybody to stay together. Brenda starts whimpering again and doesn't want to be left alone. There are ragged dolls and children shoes everywhere. Brenda first lays herself down and then leaves the building. Karen speaks to her, and Brenda rocks herself back and forth, like a crazy woman.
Brenda says that she wasn't there. Finally, she says where Cody is. In the woods, she can't find the exact spot. There are some stones placed in a particular way. Karen finds it, and Brenda says that she buried Cody all on her own. Lorenzo insists that Brenda picks one of the stones: they are really heavy. Brenda couldn't have done it on her own; Lorenzo tells her that one lie more, and he's out of the case.
Outside, while they take Brenda away, a man is telling everybody that white people still blame all crimes on blacks. They find the body, but Lorenzo is still unsure that she should be charged on homicide grounds. The same cop who first devised and organized the blockade, now wants to get rid of it and wash his hands. Lorenzo says that there was never any reason for the blockade, apart from the cop's attitude, that the blockade would only affect a bunch of black animals on welfare (Lorenzo's quote, not mine).
Danny arrives, asking for a lawyer for Brenda. She says that there was a Billy UnknownSurname with her. She used to try to help children at the Rainbow Club. Billy (Anthony Mackie) was unemployed at that time. Felicia thought that he was full of crap, but Brenda felt identified with him. Brenda can't resist the pressure of having to take care of Cody 24 hours a day. When she wants to go out, sometimes he'd wake up and cry for her. Billy and Brenda want to go out together, but Cody starts calling for her. Cody tells her that if she went, she'd be sorry. There is a lot of rambling on Brenda's part. When she returns home, she smells something awful, probably the cough syrup Cody had on his own. At that point, she is convinced that Cody was dead, because "a mother always knows". Lorenzo tries to tell her that it was an accident. Brenda says she's done and that she wants to be charged. Lorenzo tries to convince to talk about Billy, so that he can be charged as well. Billy took Cody's body wrapped in a blanket and buried him where Brenda told him.
Lorenzo's bleeper sounds. Brenda becomes hysterical and asks if Cody is OK. Lorenzo will charge her with homicide. Lorenzo starts speaking into a microphone. Brenda becomes violently hysterical, shouting like a madwoman. Three police officers are needed to take her away. Billy Williams arrives, also arrested. He says to Lorenzo that he only helped Brenda.
Meanwhile, there is a riot on the streets. People are running all over the place, there is fire everywhere, Lorenzo and other cops arrive to the place. The riot police and the crowd are face-to-face. Lorenzo and the rest are trying to calm people down. There is a moment of quiet and still when Lorenzo prevents a boy to start burning some boxes. Rafik looks to a particular riot police officer. Lorenzo tells one of the riot police officers to back off so that the people will have the opportunity to back off as well. Rafik steps in and punches one of them, as if he had something private against him. This is an all-out war.
Lorenzo gets in the middle and he gets punched / hit with a club. He thinks he sees ---- staring at him. He remembers Cody, the child Brenda thinks she saw at hospital. Lorenzo passes out.
A judge (Patricia Mauceri) charges Brenda Martin with the murder of Cody. Her attorney (Richard Price) almost has to answer in her behalf. Lorenzo is there, sad but not hurt. Brenda is in suicide watch. Lorenzo feels responsible somehow. Brenda suddenly blurts out that she loves him and kisses him on his lips and leaves. Lorenzo also checks on his brother. Lorenzo cries and hugs his brother.
He goes to the site where Cody's body was found: there is a shrine of photographs, flowers, balloons outside derelict Freedomland.