The film begins in 1993, in the middle of a crowded street, in an unnamed city. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) says goodbye to his friends and heads back to work after finishing his lunch break. On his way back, he takes a leak in an alley and fills an empty paper soda cup with vodka so he can continue drinking at work. As he reaches the office, he is greeted with sarcastic criticism from his secretary who informs him that he is late and that several clients have been waiting for him. Joe brushes this all off and continues to his office. He answers a call from his ex-wife, scolding him for not being at his daughter's third birthday. Joe yells back and points out that she won’t even remember him being there. Moments after hanging up, Joe’s boss Bernie Sharkey (Richard Portnow) walks in to check on Joe to see if he is going to lock down a deal with Daniel Newcombe (Lance Reddick). Joe assures his boss Bernie that he will land the deal and that he, in fact, has reservations to an expensive restaurant to wine and dine him that same evening. Bernie is confident that Joe will make the deal, but also reminds him that, without this client, the whole business, along with Joe, will be fucked.
That night at dinner, Joe successfully makes a deal with Newcombe, mostly due to the fact that Newcombe’s girlfriend approves of all of Joe’s ideas and jokes. After the two shake hands, Newcombe leaves to the restroom. While he is away, Joe begins flirting with Newcombe’s girlfriend. Joe, thinking that she only liked his ideas and jokes because she liked him, proposes that the two of them meet sometime. Joe even goes as far as putting his hand on her thigh. To Joe’s shock, she is, in fact, so discussed by Joe that she laughed at his jokes and liked his ideas only to hurry things along so that she could leave. At the same moment, Newcombe arrives catching Joe red handed. Newcombe lectures Joe about respect and storms out with his girlfriend subsequently ending any deal.
Knowing how badly he had messed up, Joe goes on a drinking bender. Joe walks the streets yelling for more alcohol, passes out on the street and throws up while still unconscious, wakes up from the rain, walks (what seems to be a Chinatown setting) to a street vender and buys a ducky toy (duck squeaky toy that looks like Buddha seen again later), and then ends up at a bar called Chucky’s. Joe tries to get one more drink from Chucky/bar owner but turns Joe away saying, “He promised” (note: the small bit of dialogue the two have hint at a larger relationship between them). As Joe walks away, an Asian woman with an umbrella (yellow with red marks-reoccurring) draws him to her; fade to black.
Joe wakes up naked, inside what appears to be a motel room. As Joe walks around, he finds that the room strangely has clothes provided. Joe puts on a pair of boxers and goes to the bathroom to take a leak. After realizing he is alone, Joe looks for a house phone. The room: a single room with a bathroom and bed, TV in the wall, a door with no doorknob (made out of steel), a bible, a set of encyclopedia, a creepy poster of a black bell boy and a window that displays a rotating poster of a field at night and during the day (used to signifier what time of day it is). As time passes, Joe is routinely fed three meals a day all including vodka and Joes least favorite Chinese dumplings for lunch. For the first few days, Joe begs to know why he was “put in here,” but to no avail. One day Joe watches a provocative television workout program and begins masturbating. As Joe finishes gas fills the room from hidden ducts. While Joe is passed out an Asian man walks in and collects DNA evidence from Joe. Sometime later Joe watches a news report telling of the rape and murder of his ex-wife. Joe realizing he had been framed begins to trash his room. When Joe wakes up the following day he finds the room restored.
As the years pass, Joe begins to learn the rules of the room through trial and error. Rules being: no suicide any attempt results in gas and medical attention, no friends (Joe takes a mouse as a pet and helps to feed its babies) resulting in the death of a mouse and its litter, the room is monitored 24/7 through the use of cameras, no change in food (same three meals everyday). Joe also finds a torn receipt in the Chinese food one-day revealing the restaurant is called dragon something (important clue later). Joe also routinely watches a show called Unsolved Mysteries of Crime, which “coincidently” follows Joe’s own case. It is through this show Joe is updated on the status of his daughter Mia who, after she was orphaned was adopted by a couple. After ten years, Joe turns his imprisonment around after watching his daughter Mia play some music (on an updated episode of the same show). Joe: stops drinking, works out every day, trains to box and fight from fights on TV, writes a list of all the people he wronged and starts to write his daughter letters which he plans on giving her whenever. Joe also begins to dig out tiles from the shower believing it to be the only place not visible by the cameras.
Ten more years pass. The year is now 2013. Joe has removed enough tiles to fit his body. As he gets ready to escape, another update episode of Unsolved Mysteries of Crime plays just as it ends his daughter is seen giving an interview. Gas fills the room. This time, however, Joe wakes up in a box in the middle of the woods. Joe is now dressed in black clean shaved and cut. Joe checks his pockets to find sunglasses, money, and an iPhone. As Joe stubbles around, he finds his letters in the box with him. Joe begins to walk away but then spots an Asian woman with the same umbrella he saw before. Joe follows after her. When Joe catches up to her and stops her she acts as if she is being attacked which draws the attention of some college football players. One of the players punches Joe allowing the umbrella woman to escape. Joe now angered attacks the football players (5 total). Joe severely injures all the players by either breaking a limb or using a broken bottle to knock them down (possibly killing one or two of them). Joe again runs after the umbrella woman, which leads him to a line for a mobile free-clinic. Joe realizes too late that a homeless man now has the umbrella and that the women is now long gone.
As Joe is about to walk away, a nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) stops him and tries to help him. Joe refuses her help, but she insists that he at least take her card. Joe does so and walks away. After getting his bearings, Joe finds his way back to Chucky’s. It is then revealed that Chucky (Michael Imperioli) is a close friend of Joes from high school. The two talk and Joe explains everything to Chucky. Suddenly, Joes iPhone starts to ring (signature ring tone) Joe answers and a creepy British man asks Joe how he enjoyed his first day out in 20 years. Joe tries to get more information from the man, but he has already hanged up. Chucky checks the phone to try and find out who it was, but the number is blocked. Joe takes out his list of names and tries to find a phone book to look them up, but Chucky stops him and instead teaches Joe how to search for people online. As Joe searches late into the night, he is able to cross off some of the names, for example, Daniel Newcombe who had died of a plain crash. The next morning Joe tries to leave to go see his old boss (also on the list) but is stopped when he passes out. Chucky finds him and is about to call an ambulance when he notices the nurse’s card.
Sometime later, Joe is on an IV, sleeping in a back room. The nurse now introduced as Marie Sebastian tells Chucky that Joe will be fine and that he is simply malnourished. As Chucky leaves to open the bar Marie flips through Joe’s things and notices the letters. Marie begins to read the letters and a few hours later Joe wakes up. Joe angered at Marie for reading the letters threatens to hurt her to try and scare her off. Marie having read the letters knows what Joe had gone through and believes that he wont hurt her. Marie insists that she help Joe on his quest. Soon after the two arrive at a retirement community where Joe finds his boss Bernie, now catatonic Joe crosses him off his list. With the trail getting cold, Joe suddenly remembers the Chinese food he was served while in the room. With Marie’s help, Joe gets a list of all the Chinese food restaurant with the name dragon and begins to go to everyone and orders dumplings. At this point, Marie has to leave to go to work while Joe continues his search.
When Joe finally finds the restaurant with the same dumplings he waits for any large to go orders. Sure enough at lunch a man shows up to pick up a large to go order, Joe follows him. When the man leaves in his car, Joe steals a bike and a hammer and continues to follow soon arriving at a large factory building. Joe, realizing this is the same place he was held captive begins, killing all the security there, eventually getting to a single office where he confronts Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson). After knocking Chaney out, Joe ties him up and begins torturing him for information. Chaney claims to not know the identity of the person who paid him to keep Joe there and goes on to tell him that it is a business and that he never knows his clients names. However, Chaney reveals that he tapes all of his calls. Joe finds the tape with his info (name, time, date). Joe then listens to a conversation between the British man (person that commissioned to have him captive) and Chaney. Chaney explains to the man how the rooms work and also elaborates that this business has been around for a long time and that its fool-proof (Joe looks though dozens of monitors all with people in rooms like his while the tape plays).
Off screen, some of Chaney’s thugs finds the bodies of the men Joe killed, and call via intercom for everyone to come up to Chaney’s office. Joe hearing the commotion outside tries to flee by using Chaney as a hostage but ends up having to fight his way out. Joe faces wave after wave of Chaney’s thugs fighting/killing them with his hammer, knives, bats and two by fours (oddly not one of them has a gun). Joe despite being severely hurt manages to get outside where a fancy car pulls up (the British man + his thugs) and picks Joe up and drops him back off at Chucky’s. Joe blacks out and an unknown amount of time passes. When he wakes up Joe is patched back up thanks to the help of Marie and a Doctor friend of hers. Joe fearing Maries involvement forces her to go home and not come back. That night at the bar Joe gets another call. This time, it has a number to call back. When Joe calls back, a phone in the bar rings.
As Joe looks over, a British man (Sharlto Copley) answers the phone and tells Joe he “thought that they should finally meet”. Joe runs over to attack the man, but he is easily stopped by the man's (95lb Asian female) bodyguard. The British man reveals himself as the person responsible for imprisoning Joe for 20 years and killing Joe’s ex-wife and framing him for it. He goes on to challenge Joe. In exchange for a signed confession, 20 million dollars in diamonds, the safe return of his daughter Mia (guess he kidnapped her at some point) and his promise that he will take his own life if Joe can answer two questions. Who am I? and why did he imprison Joe for 20 years. The man gives Joe 2 days (give or take) and then informers him that he has revealed Maries address to Chaney prompting Joe to leave to go rescue her.
At Maries house, Chaney and his thugs wait for Joe. As he bursts through the door, Joe is captured as Maries life is threatened if he fights back. Just as Chaney is about to torture Joe he gets a phone call (from the British man) telling him to leave in exchange of a great deal of money. Chaney happily does so, and Joe frees Marie and the two leave. While driving away, Joe gets another call telling Joe he most hurry. This is when Joe realizes the ring tone is always the same a Shazam app later Joe finds out that the tone is the theme to his old high school. With this clue, Joe goes on a series of little trips to uncover the truth. Joe first goes to the headmistresses house to steal a yearbook, where Joe finds out that the British man also went to the same school as Joe and that his name is Adrian Pryce. Next, Joe asks Chucky if he remembers Adrian, which he doesn’t. Joe then brakes into his old school and goes through newsreels and student files revealing the truth about Adrian.
Adrian was from a rich family he and his sister both attended the high school. Joe one night accidentally catches Adrian’s sister having sex with an older man later revealed as her/Adrian’s father. Joe later tells Chucky who in turn informs the whole school. The rumors force the two Pryce children to move away where soon after Adrian’s father Mr. Pryce kills himself and kills his wife and daughter leave Adrian wounded but alive.
Off screen, Chucky, with the use of the Internet, also finds this out and tries to tell Joe. Adrian shows back up at the bar and kills Chucky for interfering and (mainly) calling his sister a whore.
Now knowing the truth, Joe prepares himself to face Adrian. Fearing Marie’s well being, he demands she stay put till everything is over. The two stay at a motel near the school and have a passionate night of sex. Unbeknownst to them Adrian has set up cameras in the room (coincidently). That night Joe leaves instructing Marie to stay till he gets back. Joe arrives at Adrian’s penthouse, and fights Adrian’s bodyguard this time, however, Joe manages to kill her with the use of a hidden blade. When confronting Adrian Joe answers the two questions. Adrian Pryce and that he imprisoned Joe for spreading the rumor and subsequently destroying Adrian family. (Also to note: Adrian reveals that he too had an incestuous relationship with his own father) Adrian congratulates Joe and tells him “he is a man of his word”; giving Joe the diamonds Adrian adds, “you should have also asked yourself the most important question”. “Why did I let you go?” Adrian then leads Joe to his daughter Mia who is in a sound stage. Adrian reveals to Joe that Mia is not, in fact, his daughter but a paid actress. Adrian had made a fake TV show (Unsolved Mysteries of Crime) and shows it to Joe so that he would not suspect that Marie is, in fact, his real daughter.
For the last 20 years, Adrian has set into motion Marie’s whole life from choosing neglectful foster parents to changing her name from Mia to Marie. Joe is shocked and sickened after finding out that he slept with his daughter, to such a state that he begs Adrian not to tell her and to kill him. Adrian calls Marie as Joe continues to beg. At the last minute, satisfied with his revenge, Adrian hangs up the phone and shoots himself in the head. Joe, knowing that he can never see Marie again, writes a letter instead, telling her that he loves her, but that they can never see each other again. Joe sends Marie the letter along with almost all of the diamonds and the duck Buddha toy. He then gives the last of the diamonds to Chaney to buy himself a permanent stay in the room.
As the doors close, Joe smiles.
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