NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Steve K
Miami, Florida. The not-too-distant future. Global warming has flooded most of the cities on the east coast. Land barons (think mob boss-style land lords) rule over any bit of dry land they can get their hands on. The town is impoverished, with some people living in boats and certain slum-like areas; homeless. It’s the kind of world where people look for anything to escape and remember the good times.
This is where former military veteran Nicholas “Nick” Bannister (Hugh Jackman) comes in. He runs a business where people can pay to experience old memories through a special machine called a “reminiscence” machine, once used for police interrogations. Nick occasionally narrates throughout the story, a la old school noir movies, describing the world and his thoughts during the events that play out. He, along with his partner and fellow ex-vet Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandie Newton), has customers through appointments. This includes Nick’s old paraplegic vet buddy Hank (Javier Molina) and a recurring customer, Elsa Carine (Angela Sarafayn), the latter of who frequently comes in to experience on specific memory over and over involving her and an elderly lover.
Nick is initially called in by the local police, in particular, Avery Castillo (Natalie Martinez), to look into Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), a dying land baron who’s nonetheless notorious for holding a monopoly in the area. Nick’s services are dismissed due to being late to the meeting. Still, as he’s leaving, he overhears Walter asking his son Sebastian (Mojean Aria) if he’s found “her” yet, to which he replies no.
One day, just before closing up shop, a mysterious, alluring woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) comes in asking for an impromptu session to find her missing keys. Nick agrees and eventually locates them. However, Nick becomes entranced by Mae’s lounge singing, particularly one song that he later confesses was one that his grandfather used to sing before he died. After meeting again later at one of Mae’s jobs, she and Nick eventually form a relationship and fall in love with each other. Mae tells Nick a story involving how she wound up at a white seahouse just off-shore after her boat had drifted away.
Cut to months later. Mae has seemingly gone missing, and Nick is pouring through his memories to try and figure out where she’d gone. Watts expresses her concern over Nick’s obsession, but Nick rebuffs it, saying people don’t just vanish. Nick’s called back in to look into the memories of Falks, a former enforcer of a crime lord named Saint Joe (Daniel Wu). While watching the memories, Nick notices Mae with Joe (along with a crooked cop on Joe’s patrol) and convinces Falks to follow more times he’d seen Mae. Eventually, he gets to a memory where Mae steals a considerable amount of a drug called balka from Joe when he’s out of the room, and she attacks Falks when she’s caught. This prompts Nick to start questioning how much he really knew Mae, and he sets out alone to New Orleans to question Saint Joe.
Upon arriving at Saint Joe’s headquarters, Nick initially tries posing as a junkie to get in. Still, it eventually fails when Joe sees through his facade. Nick drops the act and flat out asks Joe about Mae, but he says he hadn’t seen her in a long time. Joe then tries to have Nick drowned in an eel tank, but Watts swoops in for the rescue, having followed Nick. A shootout occurs (Hank established Watts earlier as being a good shot earlier in the movie), ending with Joe mortally wounded, Nick saved from the tank, and Joes’ men dead. Joe begs for Watts to put him out of his misery, not wanting to suffocate to death. Watts obliges, then brings Nick home.
Later, after sifting more memories of him and Mae, Nick realizes that Mae had robbed his vault of memory recordings and stolen those belonging to Elsa. He also realizes she was in league with the crooked cop from earlier. He is now recognized as an enforcer of Joe’s named Cyrus Booth (Cliff Curtis). An annoyed Watts reveals to him that Walter Sylvan has died. The public is furious that his land monopoly is still standing. As they watch Sebastian and his mother Swati (Mariana de Tavira) leave, Nick suddenly realizes something. Going back to the office, he uses his memory of watching Elsa’s earlier memory as a substitute for what was stolen and then compares it to one Swati had viewed years ago (she was an old client of Nick’s). A bombshell is dropped: Walter was having an affair with Elsa years ago, who got pregnant with his child, another son.
Realizing Elsa and her boy are in danger, Nick is determined to go after her. A fed-up Watts tries to convince Nick to take the evidence to the police, but Nick believes the police wouldn’t do anything. This descends into an argument. Watts calls Nick on his obsession with finding Mae while Nick accuses Watts of working for him as an excuse to run away from her family and former life. He fires her and arranges to have her transferred to working with Avery, causing Watts to leave in disgust, telling Nick he’s on his own.
Nick goes to the Sylvan manor and questions Swati about Walter’s affair during a reenactment of the memory Nick had on file of her (where she tells Walter she’s pregnant). She says that Elsa was one of several women he did this with. The interrogation is cut short by Sebastian, who has Nick escorted out and ordered killed. However, one of the bodyguards has Nick spared due to being a former military vet but warns Nick he won’t be so lucky if he returns. Nick then tries to track down Elsa, but an encounter with a resident girl who knew her reveals that he’s too late. Elsa was killed, and her son Freddie (the child Walter had impregnated her with) was kidnapped and seemingly killed as well by a woman, whom Nick deduces to be Mae. Nick continues tracking down Elsa, only to be amused and subdued by Cyrus, now heavily scarred compared to how he looked earlier, who warns him to get off Mae’s trail. Cyrus calls someone (made to seem like it might be Mae) to inform them that Nick won’t be bothering them again.
Undeterred, Nick pursues Cyrus to an abandoned trash factory full of homeless people and confronts him about Mae. Cyrus gloats and goads him into trying to kill him. He flees due to Nick’s hesitation, and Nick gives chase. The two fight and, despite nearly drowning at one point, Nick eventually sneaks up on Cyrus and knows him out with a sedative.
Nick brings Cyrus back to his office and puts him in the reminiscence machine as a means of interrogating him. It is here the truth is revealed: Cyrus had blackmailed Mae into working for him. The two were former partners working for Saint Joe, but Mae bailed on them in order to go straight and live an honest life. He made her con Nick into a relationship using information Hank had unwittingly told her, like the song and faking losing her keys, with the goal being to break into his vault and steal Elsa’s memory recordings. They both later tracked down Elsa and Freddie, and Cyrus does the deed of killing the former. Mae, having a change of heart, didn’t kidnap Freddie but rescued him and got him to safety before Cyrus subdued her.
Cyrus later drugged her with balka to get her to tell him where she hid Freddie. Mae instead leaves an indirect message for Nick, knowing he’ll see this memory. She apologizes for deceiving him and confesses she really did love him and that she should have told him everything from the start. Mae then proceeds to commit suicide by throwing herself to her death, leaving Nick distraught. Nick chooses not to kill Cyrus but instead uses the memory of his Saint Joe’s men burned and disfigured him to traumatize him, cranking up the voltage on the machine to electrically lobotomize him.
However, there’s one last twist. Nick returns to the Sylvan manor during another of Swati’s reenactments and confronts the true mastermind behind everything: Sebastian. He was the one who ordered Cyrus to kill Elsa and Freddie, fearing Freddie’s existence would put his inheritance at risk, and whom Cyrus had spoken to on the phone earlier, not Mae. Freddie is revealed to be alive and safe at the white seahouse that Mae told Nick about, rescued by the police on a tip from Nick. Sebastian first threatens to kill Nick, then instead himself, but Nick calls his bluff. As Nick leaves, a distraught Sebastian breaks down in his mother’s arms.
Nick visits Watts at her new job. As the two reconcile, Nick confesses to intentionally frying Cyrus’ brain, a crime punishable by a prison sentence. Regardless, Nick urges Watts to tell Avery and the police everything as he proceeds to explain to her the whole story off-screen.
Sometime later, Nick is shown walking back to his office as Miami is in chaos with riots everywhere. Through narration, it’s revealed that thanks to the information Nick gave to the police, the Sylvan family’s monopoly over the town’s land is finally broken, implying Sebastian will probably be going to jail. Nick also implies to have only served a minor jail sentence for what he did to Cyrus and is perhaps only just getting out during this scene. He returns to his office and re-enters the reminiscence machine to enjoy his memories he had with Mae.
Cut ahead one last time to many years later. A now elderly Nick is still in the machine, with an equally elderly Watts keeping tabs on him as she puts flowers next to the tank he’s in. Her granddaughter asks why she’s taking care of him, and Watts says she and Nick both made their own choices long ago. As the two leave, we see that Nick is remembering the time he told Mae the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but in a way that makes it seem like they lived happily ever after. As we cut back and forth to this memory, Nick smiles, content.