The movie is about the family (daughters and sister) of a man who has disappeared. Beverly Weston (played by Sam Shepard) is married to a strong willed lady Violet. Violet has cancer of the mouth, for which she is taking drugs to handle the pain, and at the same time, she is a literal pain for Beverly (who is an alcoholic himself). Her drugs and overall disposition ensures that she can be plain nasty at times. Meanwhile, Beverly has just hired a lady to take care of Violet; soon after, Beverly goes missing, and Violet calls her daughters and sister over for help to find Beverly. And that is where the main story progresses.
And the family is an odd mix. Her eldest daughter, Barbara (played by Julia Roberts), who can be equal to her mother in nastiness, is separated from her husband Bill, but for this time, comes along with Bill and her daughter Jean (14 year old). The middle daughter is Ivy lives nearby and is single. Her youngest daughter, Karen, also arrives there (along with a man who she claims is her fiancee, a sleazy businessman). And to complete the list of relatives, Violet's sister, Mattie Fae also arrives there with her husband, Charles, and soon after, their son "Little Charles" (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives there. In the meantime, the Sheriff has declared that Beverly drowned in the lake, and a funeral is planned.
Once the funeral has happened, that is when the dysfunctional family shows the tensions and emotions within. Violet starts to become truthful and also brutal, and Barbara promptly shows that she is not less talented than Violet. The tension in Little Charles family also becomes clear, when Mattie Fae puts him down after he has sang a song for Ivy, and Charles promptly tells his wife that he will no longer tolerate her berating Little Charles, and they can get divorced on this ground. The tensions in the family keep on increasing, with some painful truths coming out, and family members leaving the house.