Federal agent Irving Greenfield confers with a Southern governor about the corruption problem in fictional Dunston County and local boss "Bama" McCall. Irving intends to find Gator McKlusky, an old buddy of Bama's just out of prison, to help get the goods on Bama. When Irving mentions that "cleaning up" Dunston County would help his re-election, the governor agrees to give Irving whatever he needs.
Irving visits Gator who is back with his father and daughter in Okeefenokee. Gator is disinterested at first, but reconsiders when Irving threatens to put his father in jail and his daughter in foster care. They drive to Dunston, where Gator reunites with Bama at a political rally and is immediately hired as a collector. Gator also locks eyes with TV reporter Aggie Maybank, who is after a story. After treating Gator to a taste of the high life, Bama secretly orders a background check on him, and Gator gets a closer look at Bama's empire: extortion, drugs, and corruption at every level. Then Bama sets Gator up with one of the girls at his brothel, a drugged cheerleader Gator remembers from the rally; she says that all the girls there are minors, which Bama prefers.
Disgusted, Gator wants out, and Bama gives him a spiked drink and says he will wake up in his car parked at the county line pointed toward home. As promised, Gator wakes up in his car at daybreak, but now he wants to get Bama. Meanwhile, Irving is trying to fit in by hanging out at a local bar and making conversation when a corrupt cop recognizes him and gets word to Bama's enforcers Smiley and Bones, who injure Irving bad enough to be hospitalized.
At the hospital Gator meets Aggie, who wants to see Irving. She tells of Emmeline, a "cat lady" fired from the Dunston County courthouse after 22 years. Gator and Aggie visit the woman, who mentions secret ledgers in the courthouse basement. That night, using stolen keys, they sneak in and find the ledgers, but a guard hits the alarm, and police quickly converge, but they escape in a patrol car, pick up Irving, and go to Aggie's uncle's beach house nearby. Gator and Aggie slip out to the beach for the night while Irving and Emmeline get acquainted.
At daybreak, while Gator and Aggie go to call Irving's boss, Bama and Bones arrive, kill Irving, and set fire to the house to destroy the ledgers; Bones tries to haul Emmeline away, but she breaks free and is killed when she tries to rescue her cats. Seeing the fire, Gator and Aggie hide at a nearby motel. He first calls Irving's boss to come and get them, then Bama to tell him that he has some of the tax records and wants $2,000 and a plane ticket home in exchange for his location; Bama apparently agrees. When they arrive, Bama sends Bones into the room to kill Gator and Aggie, but he is killed by an exploding booby trap set by Gator, who then emerges and chases Bama to the nearby beach. Gator beats him in a fistfight just as a helicopter approaches.
Later, Aggie is in a celebratory mood; her story has gone national and CBS wants her to work in New York. Gator tells her he loves her but, realizing they have no future together, he reluctantly heads home.
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