A black-and-white image fills the screen: a man in military uniform, his back to the observer, eyes shielded with his hand as he watches something. The camera pans across the back of a man perched atop a humvee, smoking a cigar, past other figures to the image of four hanging victims with hoods covering their heads. An echoing, creaking sound mixes with that of a crying infant. Scattered movements of color across the screen slow to reveal themselves as people crossing in front of the stationary black-and-white image and the sound melts into the hum of multiple conversations from clusters of people having cocktails in a photographic studio. We see the photographer, a young man with slightly disheveled hair, dressed in a worn denim jacket. Flashes of his photographs show them to be stark, militaristic pictures taken in a variety of settings, the subjects of different races, some in uniform, some not, some armed and defiant, others the victims of war and poverty. A few words can be distinguished from the muddle of conversation, including one man's: "Power. Shock value. Take my word for it-- Veil's someone to keep your eye one." We see the plaque for the execution photograph: "Hidden Agenda. Black and White. 1994. Negative Press" followed by sections of the photo, beginning with two figures kneeling beneath the gallows. Around the photograph is a separate frame made of bare wood loosely wrapped with barb wire.
A woman tells Tom how real and unforgiving his photographs are. Tom says the truth is unforgiving and backs away to be captured by a young woman who calls his pictures beautiful. A surprised Tom says he never thought of them that way. He sees them as a record of the facts: what is and what was. Startled by the sound of breaking glass as a waiter drops a tray, Tom makes his way over to an attractive woman engaged in conversation. He apologizes for the interruption, but says the babysitter called because little Tommy threw up. She excuses herself and then playfully scolds Tom for the fiction about the babysitter. He says one day they will have kids and pleads to go. She says of course they can't go. Doesn't he want people to see his work? She understands him: "Everything in front of the camera is fair game, but the man behind needs to remain invisible." He offers her a steak dinner if they can leave, adding trimmings until cheesecake gets him an agreement to leave in 15 minutes. When he says he knew the cheesecake would do it, she replies that's the problem with marriage: no mystery. He tells her "Trust me. You will always be a mystery." Behind them, a photograph on the wall imitates Grant Wood's painting American Gothic, with Tom and Alyson in place of the severe farmer and his wife, a camera on a stand in Tom's hand replacing a pitchfork.
His friend Larry Levy calls him over, saying what an ego trip this must be for Tom. Tom says he's getting out rather than getting off on it. Larry tells him fame and fortune are right around the corner and Tom should climb aboard for the ride. He decides he might have a chance with some of these "art babes" by telling them he's Tom's best friend. Tom tells him to go get 'em and turns to find himself trapped by an approaching woman, who gushes "What a powerful, magnificent show!"
Tom and Alyson sit in a restaurant booth, sharing in light-hearted banter about how she could have been bought for just the cheesecake. The mood darkens when she says it was too bad Tom's mother couldn't have been here for the opening. Tom says she wouldn't have come to his funeral, but then decides maybe she would have liked to have seen that. He says the opening was painful enough without his mother telling him how he drove his father from the house and left her alone to die. Tom says she believes that when he left to follow his dreams, he abandoned her and inspired his father to leave; two months later she was alone. Alyson still feels that someone should have told her that Tom's work was finally getting some recognition. Following the crash of a tray of dishes, Tom excuses himself to go to the restroom.
Tom steps out into the restaurant again. His step slows as he sees an older couple seated at the table he had left. He looks around and finally seeks out the maitre d', asking, "Hey Gino, did Alyson change tables?" Gino says he doesn't know what he's talking about and that Mr. and Mrs. Charney have had that table reserved every Thursday for the last 10 years. Tom thinks this is Alyson's idea of a joke but that it has gone far enough. When Gino asks him to leave the restaurant, Tom finally realizes he's serious about not remembering seating them just 20 minutes earlier. Tom approaches the Charneys, telling them they're a "very authentic-looking older couple but it's time to 86 the crumpets and scones." A tall, strongly-built man joins them and suggests he and Tom take their business outside. A protesting Tom is ushered out of the restaurant. Tom asks the bouncer if he isn't overplaying his part and if Tom is now supposed to go back to the show and apologize for leaving early. The man snaps that he doesn't care what he does as long as he stays out of the restaurant. Thunder and lightning remind Tom that Alyson has the car. He steps into a phone booth, muttering, "You are going to pay for this." He presses in the numbers to hear a high-pitched squeal, followed by "I'm sorry, your call cannot be connected-- " He clicks it off, trying again, this time letting the message play to the end. He slowly replaces the phone in its cradle, a concerned, bewildered expression on his face.
Tom gets out of a cab in the rain in front of a white, two-story house. His key fails to open the door and he knocks, calling, "Alyson, it's me. Come on. Open the door." The door finally opens, but Alyson asks, "Who are you? What do you want?" She threatens to call the police if he doesn't leave in 10 seconds. He tells her the joke's over; he's cold and tired. The dog beside her growls and barks at Tom, who irritably asks if he's in on it too. A man dressed in a bathrobe and carrying a shotgun steps to the door. He says, "Look, pal. Why don't you go sleep it off somewhere?" When Tom asks who he is, he says he's Alyson's husband. He pumps the shotgun to punctuate his threat to blow a hole in Tom's leg. Alyson watches calmly as Tom backs away open-mouthed, the door swinging shut in his face.
Another cab lets him off back in the city in time to see Larry drive away in a convertible with a laughing woman. Tom calls his name but fails to get his attention. He inserts his card in an ATM machine and enters his pin number to see the message "Unauthorized user card." Tom pounds on the machine in frustration, hearing a recorded message that his card has been confiscated and the transaction recorded by video. He takes a cab to his studio to find his keys won't open either lock on the door. He enters through a second-story loft window. The Hidden Agenda photograph is missing, only the bare frame and plaque remaining. He picks up the American Gothic photograph, shaking off broken glass, to find his image replaced by that of the man posing as Alyson's husband.
We see the white house again and hear the sound of a radio. Tom turns off the radio alarm and sits up in bed, trying to shake off some lingering memory. He steps past his dog to wash his face at the bathroom sink, telling Alyson, who lies with her face turned away from him, that she wouldn't believe the dream he had last night. He says he's never been so happy to wake up in all his life. His only remaining question is the identity of the other guy. He rolls her towards him to find her face a smooth, empty mask suddenly pierced by glowing eyes. He wakes to find himself slumped in a chair in his studio.
Alyson leaves the dry cleaners and gets into her car. She fastens her seatbelt and prepares to pull out, to have Tom suddenly sit up in the back seat and grab her by the hair. Tom orders her to drive and demands to know who put her up to this. She denies knowing what he's talking about, but he tells her to "Cut the crap! It's about the photograph, isn't it?" She couldn't have gone into his bank account and changed the locks on her own. She finally stops denying she knows him, but says they told her that if she said anything, they would kill Tom. She claims she doesn't know who they are, but she had no choice; they're watching both her and Tom. She tells him, "I'm not the enemy." Tom apologizes and tries to think of someone they can turn to for help. They hear a brief siren and see the lights of a police car behind them. Tom tells her to pull over-- he doubts very much they've gotten to the cops. The officer asks Tom to step out of the car, instructing him to put his hands on the hood. He explains that they had a report from the dry cleaner of a man in the back of Alyson's car. Tom says that there's no problem because he's her husband, only to hear Alyson cry that this man had hid in the back of her car. She says she's never seen him before in her life; he's insane and needs help. Tom tries to convince the officer that she's lying, that someone is forcing her to do this. When the man starts to read him his rights, Tom thrusts his elbow back into his face. The officer slams his fist into Tom's ribs, then swings his baton across his back, subduing him with the baton across the back of his neck long enough to cuff him. Alyson watches fearfully as he is pulled away.
A sign on a brick wall reads Calaway Psychiatric Hospital. We can hear Tom's voice: "I know this sounds completely insane, but I'm not deluded. I have no paranoid obsessions." He is seated in a high wooden chair, his arms folded in front of him, confined by a straitjacket. Dr. Bellamy grinds a pencil into the end of his cigar, asking if Tom minds if he smokes, and settles back into an easy chair, a beefy orderly standing at attention behind him. He finds some humor in Tom's answer of "No. Do you mind if I leave?" He asks if Tom understands why he was brought here, and Tom answers that he understands the circumstances under which he was brought here, but he's not sure about why. Bellamy starts to cite the police report about Tom accosting a woman. Tom protests "That's not what happened!" to be stopped by Bellamy, who tells him he needs to learn to keep his emotions in check if he wants to make a good impression at Calaway. He begins again to have Tom rise and yell, "Look, if you would just listen!" Tom settles back in the chair with a small laugh, waiting for Bellamy to finish before asking if it's his turn. He asks if Bellamy knows who is he is and if he's familiar with his work as a photographer. When Bellamy says that Tom must be quite famous, Tom tells him not to patronize him. "It's not as if I don't know how this sounds. The woman I've been accused of harassing is my wife. Someone for some reason has gotten to her and forced her to act like she doesn't know me." He invites Bellamy to call his friends, beginning with Larry Levy, to check him out. When Bellamy asks about family, he hesitates before saying he has a mother, his voice trailing off. Bellamy wonders why he doesn't want him to call his mother or his wife, and Tom says he can call his mother, giving her address in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but looks concerned as he does so.
He awakens in his hospital room, a figure seated cross-legged in a chair behind him saying, "Thought you knew it all, didn't you? Thought you were the special guy who saw through it." He introduces himself as Eddie, the garden-variety paranoid schizophrenic from next door. He says that Tom will never beat them at their own game, that it's not even worth trying. He also says that he heard Tom was some sort of photographer. Tom eagerly asks if it's about Hidden Agenda, if the men in the photograph are behind this. Eddie replies that he's just a mental patient, but adds that maybe they don't like Tom's type. He describes him as the type who doesn't buy into the program, the kind that's always trying to look behind the curtain. He tells Tom it looks like he'll be in "art class" for the long haul. Tom says that he gave Bellamy names of friends who will vouch for him, but Eddie tells him he doesn't have any friends. "Everything they give you they can take back. Everything you thought you had, you don't. Absolute zero, Gentle Jack, bottom line." He tells Tom to ask Dr. Bellamy about Dave Powers next time he sees him.
Tom and Bellamy leave the hospital in a van driven by the orderly. Bellamy calls the excursion a little "real-world reality check" that will be good for Tom and useful for him. When they reach Tom's studio, he asks Bellamy how he expects to get in, since he's already told him they changed the locks. Bellamy says he phoned ahead and opens the unlocked door. Inside a seated receptionist smiles and greets them, to be met by Tom's "Who the hell are you?" Bellamy apologizes for his behavior and then tells Tom that if he wants to put forward his claim, he should stop acting like a mental patient. Tom tries to get Bellamy to believe him: "This is my studio! It's not open to the public! You can't just phone ahead!" Bellamy says that the reason they are there is to test Tom's version against reality. Tom tells him "This isn't reality. They did this. They set this up." Tom whirls about, identifying the photographs as his work, taken in such places as Guatemala, Tiananmen Square, Bosnia, El Salvador and Seoul. He shows him the empty frame where Hidden Agenda was displayed before it was stolen. Bellamy calls the receptionist over and asks if they could meet the photographer. When she says he's overseas on assignment, Tom angrily yells that she doesn't know what she's talking about and shakes off Bellamy's restraining hand. He says he's spent half his life in this studio. To show he knows where everything is, he opens the cabinet where he says hazardous chemicals are stored, finding coffee instead. He slams a filing cabinet shut in rage when he can't find his papers inside. A thought suddenly occurs to him: they wouldn't know where he hid his negatives. When Bellamy questions his hiding the negatives, Tom says there's such a thing as healthy paranoia. Tom stands still, thinking, as Bellamy answers a call on his cellular phone, making an appointment to meet someone at the hospital at 10:00. Bellamy returns the discussion to the negatives and Tom feels beneath a table to find nothing. He leans against it, sure that's where they were. When Bellamy asks how he feels, he answers "Confused," agreeing that he's a little less sure of himself. Bellamy rests his hand on his shoulder and says "Confusion isn't necessarily a bad thing. Under the circumstances, being a little less sure of things might just prove to be the road to recovery."
Eddie plays ping-pong with a black man he calls JC. When Eddie talks to him, JC sings his responses: "I try to tell them who I am, but they don't believe me. You believe me, don't you, Eddie? Why doesn't anyone want to hear the truth? I'm confused." Tom hears Eddie say the words he heard from Bellamy: "Confusion isn't necessarily a bad thing. Under the circumstances, being a little less sure of things might just prove to be the road to recovery." Tom asks him how he knows what he knows. Eddie tells him he doesn't want to get inside his head; Tom has enough problems of his own. He asks him if he asked Bellamy about Dave Powers, but Tom says it hasn't come up. Eddie says he still hasn't put it together, then asks who Bellamy is going to meet at 10:00. When the nurse comes around with medication, he takes Tom's from him and gulps it down.
The hospital is dark. Tom slips out of his room and looks over the railing to catch a glimpse of Bellamy disappearing into his office with a woman. He goes downstairs and watches Bellamy and the woman exit the hospital. Tom reaches the outside door in time to identify the woman as Alyson, who is laughing as she talks to Bellamy beside her car. Tom is grabbed and sedated by two orderlies, who drag him away, ignoring his shouts that Bellamy is in on it and demanding to know what he is doing with his wife. He wakes in daylight, the clock behind him reading just past 2:00. He slips next door to find Eddie with his head bandaged, mumbling about "Fuzzy Wuzzy." As Tom calls his name, he seems to be struggling for some thought, coming out with "There was once was a man named Tom ... Tom, you used to be so calm. And then they came and took his name. Now everything is gone." He fights for something more, to slip into "Knick, knack, paddywack, give the dog a bone, this old man cannot go home." Tom picks up the chart on the end of the bed to find the words "Prefrontal lobotomy" stamped in red. He flips the chart shut to find the name David "Eddie" Powers. In grief and rage, he yells "No" to be echoed by JC in the common room, their cries joined by the other patients.
Bellamy enters Tom's room, saying, "I hear we had something of an unauthorized field trip last night." In Tom's bed is one of the orderlies, his hands bound to the rail. Tom grabs Bellamy from behind, wrapping one arm around his neck, threatening him with the syringe in his other hand. He identifies its contents as six times the amount they use to quiet the patients there. He tells him he wants his life back, but Bellamy says it's not his to give. Tom responds, "Well then, I may just have to take yours." He orders Bellamy to behave as though he's escorting Tom out of the hospital. Once at the car, he injects Bellamy and drives them out the gate.
Tom prints out a sheet of identical color portraits of himself and cuts one free. Bellamy comes to taped to a chair and watches as Tom affixes the photo to his license and slides it into a laminating machine. Tom tells him he's applying what he's learned in the past few days: "If a man's identity is so tenuous, so fragile-- If I can't be Tom Veil, hell, I might as well be you." Bellamy says that there's nowhere to go; they'll find him. He tells Tom that he has no idea what he's up against, but refuses to elaborate, saying that death at Tom's hands is a preferable option. When Tom asks how they got to his wife, Bellamy tells him his basic problem is that he doesn't seem to understand that in the end most people prefer to cooperate. When Tom says "under a great deal of threat and pressure", Bellamy shakes his head, saying "You'd be surprised." Tom opens a ventilation panel in the wall, revealing a small recess from which he takes a plastic sheet filled with negatives and puts them in his bag. He tells Bellamy forcefully that his basic problem is that he doesn't seem to understand that "No matter how much you take away, everyone has something that belongs to them, to them and nobody else. Everyone has something, and no matter how deep you dig, you'll never get it." He asks what happened to Dave Powers, and Bellamy says quietly that he lost. He won't answer the question of who won and Tom picks up a gallon bottle and begins dousing Bellamy with the liquid inside, identifying it as sulfur bromide, very useful in a darkroom and highly flammable. He wants the truth: Who does Bellamy work for?
The windows shatter inward under bursts of automatic weapon fire. Tom scrambles for cover beneath a table before men dressed in the white uniforms of orderlies burst through the broken windows. Bellamy instructs them to kill Tom, but the orderly we've seen before fires his weapon repeatedly into the doctor's body. The momentum of his chair as its hits the table knocks free the cigarette Tom was smoking earlier. Tom blows on the end to bring it back to glowing life and throws it into the pool of sulfur bromide. The orderlies fire their machine guns at him through the sheet of flames. He grabs his bag and runs from the studio, diving free just as the building and Bellamy's car explode in a tremendous, fiery blast.
He calls Larry's office from a telephone booth and is puzzled to discover that he's not at work in the middle of the day. He goes to his apartment, slipping into the building when a woman exits to walk her dog. The apartment seems deserted, a wispy piece of women's lingerie dropped on the stairs. He follows the sound of running water to see the outline of a man's shape through the glass shower stall. When Larry doesn't answer him, he opens the shower door to see a bathrobe on a hanger through the clouds of steam. Catching sight of himself in the bedroom mirror, he tells himself he looks like an escaped mental patient and opens the closet door to search for something to wear. He slides the clothes along the rod to be stunned by a hand swinging down to hit him in the side of the head. He looks up to see his friend Larry lying on the closet shelf, eyes staring straight ahead, a blue tinge to his skin. Tom runs from the room and retches into the toilet. He crouches on the bathroom floor, his breath coming in agonizing gasps. He reaches for the cordless phone above him and enters a number, asking for Mrs. Jonathan Veil. A voice he does not recognize answers.
Tom leaves Cooper Photo, carrying a large yellow envelope. He sits in an alley, addressing envelopes to Mr. T. Veil, general delivery, in a number of cities, including St. Paul, Boise and Old Beth Page, N.Y., marking each envelope "Hold for pickup." He slides copies of the negatives into each envelope, stamps them and drops the pile into a mailbox. He then flies to Des Moines.
He drives to a farmhouse and enters. He finds no one there as he walks through the rooms furnished with antiques and mementos of an earlier age. He takes a whistling teakettle off the burner, and finally encounters a young woman in a nurse's uniform. He tells her he's Helen's son and wants to know why she needs a nurse. She asks if he doesn't know his mother had a stroke six days ago. Helen lies flat in bed, the gentle rhythm of a respirator filling the room. Tom kneels beside her, tearfully saying, "Mom. It's me. It's Tom. Can you hear me?" Tom asks how this happened, and the nurse says gently that she's 73 years old. Tom harshly demands who hired her and who pays her. She suggests he contact her supervisor if he has any questions. She excuses herself for a moment when a man's voice calls for Sue. Tom returns to his mother, repeating his earlier entreaty. This time she says slowly "Tom. Is that you?" A deputy enters the room, asking Tom for some identification. Tom angrily asks if a birth certificate is required, then says he left his driver's license in his hotel room. The deputy says in that case he's been driving the rental car without a license. If Tom will come downstairs with him, they can clear things up. Tom tells him to get out of there. The deputy rests his hand on his holster, saying they can do it either easy or hard. When Tom rages at him again to get out, the deputy draws his weapon and holds it with both hands as he points it at Tom. A clergyman enters the room, telling the deputy to put the gun away. He introduces himself as Father Ralph Thomas of St. Ann's. He says that Father Carney passed on about six weeks before. He finds it interesting that Helen never said anything to him about having a son. Helen stirs and murmurs "Tom." Father Thomas bends over her, telling her that Tom has been saying he's her son. She repeats "Tom ... my son." Father Thomas says that he was surprised because she had never mentioned him. Her eyes turn toward Tom and she says harshly "My son is dead! I have no son!"
The deputy reaches for his weapon, but is hit soundly on the side of the head with a vase by Tom, who falls on him, pulling the gun from its holster. He points it at Father Thomas, wildly ordering him to stay back. The priest begs him to put the gun down and assures him that no one means him any harm. Tom asks if that's what he told Father Carney before he killed him. The bewildered priest exclaims that Father Carney died of a heart attack. He asks Tom to give him the gun, saying he's confused and doesn't know what he's saying. Sue is horrified to find the deputy on the floor hurt and rushes to help him. Tom is at the breaking point, yelling that they are all in this together. He wants to know how far this goes: "Everyone I ever met? Everyone I ever talked to?" Tom uses Sue as a hostage to leave the house, saying he doesn't have a hell of a lot more to lose. He shoots the tires of the sheriff's car and pushes the nurse to the ground. He instructs the terrified woman to tell her friends "They can't take it all. They can't take everything. They might get to everyone I ever met, but they won't get to me!" The deputy grabs a shotgun and fires at Tom's escaping vehicle, putting a hole in the front hood and shattering the rear window.
The car travels a barren stretch of highway, the wind howling as dust blows over the pavement. The engine noise suddenly increases into a rattling cough, and Tom pulls to the edge, steam pouring from the shotgun hole in the car's hood. Tom peers down the long, empty stretch of highway and begins walking.
Tom sits on a fence at a crossroads, easing his aching shoulder. He watches a pickup approach and hails its driver. The man tells Tom he looks like someone who needs a ride. When he asks, Tom says he's headed any direction he is. The man asks if he minds if he smokes. Tom, who has grabbed his jacket and bag, suddenly stops in midstride as he sees the man take a pencil and grind it into the end of his cigar. Tom watches speechlessly as the man lights the cigar and tells him he hasn't got all day. The man says if Tom knew what was good for him, he wouldn't pass up this ride. Tom doesn't answer. He looks about him, suspicion and doubt written on his face. The man finally tells his dog that it will be "a hell of a long afternoon for that feller" and drives off. Tom stands in the middle of the intersection, searching the horizon, and then settles back on the fence, a solitary figure in a vast, desolate landscape.