The premise is basic. Two college professors perform a "sociological experiment" in several midwest towns, seeing just how prevalent an undercurrent of racism is. The context of this is staging a bank robbery in very small towns where there are no other African-Americans and one guy rob the bank, then leave the other guy on the side of the road to be found by the police. Then comes an interrogation where the potential prejudice/racism can come out. It becomes justified as an "experiment" and they get pardoned from jail to go on their merry way because 1) the money gets returned and 2) the "experiment" context (ie potential for the scenario being published) leaves the sheriff embarrassed enough to let the suspect go.
The first big problem I was bugged by, throughout the entire film, was that if you rob a bank, it's a crime. Even if you give the money back. Even ATTEMPTED robbery is a crime. Obviously, there's no specific evidence of who robbed the bank (wearing masks, long clothing, etc), but the moment your partner shows up at the sheriff with a bunch of money that comes up to the amount stolen from the bank, you'll get arrested. Embarrassment aside, you've committed a crime.
Secondly, the theme of racism comes up many times but I fail to see how the behavior is racist. If you happen to show a bit of dark colored skin while robbing a bank and there are no dark skinned people in the town, then a dark skinned fellow is on the side of the road outside of town under ambiguous circumstances, it's a logic conclusion, not racism. Racism would be looking for an African-American suspect and stopping every African-American in town when there is a certain percentage of such. Using overgeneralized identifiable information on a selection of the population. But if a midget robs a bank and there are no midgets who live in town and then you see a midget on the side of the road who can't come up with a clear alibi, then you're going to conclude that the midget did it. That's just logic. It's almost like this movie was trying to overdo the race theme for some cheezy after-school feel-good purpose.
Third, in a town where people are genuinely racist, they don't talk as politely as these sheriffs do. They throw out the N-word like it's nothing. These people's behaviors was not racist, it may have been prejudiced to an outsider, but his skin color was not a factor except that it shared identifiable information to the bank robber which no other citizen in the town could identify with. But that's a minor issue.
The ending had a double twist. First, the partner never made it to the sheriff station, with the money. So enough of the situation is explained to the sheriff so they end up going on a search for the missing guy and his car. Turns out it ends up over a cliff (are there even cliffs in the midwest?), and the partner is dead. The money is in a bag, and the sheriff insists on the money first, pulled up via winch. They're apparently going to keep the money and say they let this fellow go (surprise!)
The problem I have here is that this supposed college professor of psychology never gave question to giving the money (his leverage) to the police. Granted, the money in the bag was counterfeit. But with the winch gone, how would the guy ever get back to safety? It seemed like a long ways down.
This somewhat reveals the second twist. Or perhaps there are three twists. The money they return to the bank is counterfeit. Did nobody care enough to check the serial numbers? OK, maybe that doesn't matter. Apparently they are "fake" robbing banks under the pretext of a university sociological experiment so as to acquire enough money for - surprise - the guy's dying daughter (ie black market organs from Argentina). They switch the real money for some counterfeit, and keep the real money.
Except this is where the final - and perhaps sappy - twist comes into play. The cops take the supposed bag of money and then douse the guy stuck down a cliff with gasoline, then set everything on fire. Except the guy never bothers to get up. He just sits there, screaming, in the fire. He doesn't seem to care. He doesn't bother moving, or trying to survive. Seems really stupid. And this is where the final sappy twist comes into play. He dies, and he has this life insurance policy, that pays out $8 million that can then pay for his dying daughter's black market organ/surgery! Sappy ending.
Maybe I'm the only one who caught it, but I don't see how the ending is plausible AT ALL. First off, the guy was telling the sheriff his FRIEND'S name, ie "Freeman Finch". Yes, they both died, but seems that they got burned. How can anyone be identified? Who would bother informing the insurance company? These fellows manipulated and conned the cops, so it's in their interest to pretend they don't exist. I guess maybe to close the case on the robbery they had to explain that these guys died in a car crash. How the tire popped and lose control made no sense either. What's ironic is that part of the movie's appeal is the race card played against the sheriffs, except it really was played against the movie watchers, because they really were keeping the money.