This movie is loosely based on the 1987 kidnapping of Dutch businessman Gerrit Jan Heijn
Arnold killed Wayne the day of the kidnapping, and made Eileen and the FBI believe he was still alive to get the ransom. All of the scenes with Arnold and Wayne took place the day of the kidnapping, while the scenes with Eileen and the FBI occurred after Wayne was killed. Arnold is captured several months later when he began spending the ransom money.
Retired businessman Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) is kidnapped by former employee Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe). Arnold takes Wayne to the nearby forest and they begin to walk through it. Arnold tells Wayne he intends to deliver him to his cohorts in a hunting cabin. Throughout the movie, Arnold and Wayne talk to each other while walking through the forest. Back home, Wayne's wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) is angry at her husband for missing a dinner date with their friends. That anger turns to concern when Wayne never comes home, and that concern turns to fear when Wayne's car keys are delivered in the mail, along with instructions and a recording of Wayne telling her that he is fine. The FBI soon arrive and begin their investigation. Since the kidnappers have not sent a ransom note, FBI agent Ray Fuller (Matt Craven) tells the family to follow the instructions in the mail and place an ad in the newspaper saying they got the keys. They never get a response, so another ad is placed, demanding proof of life before proceding any further. The next day, a package arrives with Wayne's glasses and a ransom note. The ransom is $500,000 and another $9.5 million in diamonds.
Back in the forest, knowing he will probably die soon, Wayne asks for a pen and paper to write a final love letter to his wife. Arnold allows it and says he will mail the letter when this is over. At home, Eileen is uncertain whether or not to pay the ransom. She increasingly believes that Wayne will not be returned. She does come up with the money and diamonds, but when she places the ad stating they have it, she also says that she refuses to pay without further proof of life. This time, a vial of blood arrives as well as drop-off instructions. The FBI tests the vial, and say that it is Wayne's blood, but cannot determine if it was drawn while he was alive or dead. Eileen decides to pay the ransom and goes to the drop-off point. She receives a call from one of the kidnappers, and he tells her to throw away her cellphone, ditch the FBI agents that are hiding nearby, find the marked car, and follow the instructions inside. She eventually ends up on a bridge in the middle of nowhere. A phone placed in the car rings, and the kidnapper tells her to drop the bag full of money and diamonds off of the bridge and drive away. She refuses unless he hears from Wayne. Wayne gets on the phone and says her name. Convinced, she drops the bag off the bridge and leaves. As she is driving, she realizes that Wayne said her name exactly like he said it on the recording. She turns around and returns to the bridge. The ransom is gone and she sees a car driving away. Since Wayne is not there, she now believes he is dead.
Several months go by, and Wayne is still missing and presumed dead. Arnold is back at his home, but it's obvious that the guilt surrounding his crime is building. He decides to start spending the ransom money and, because the serial numbers were recorded, he is quickly caught. During his interrogation, he tells Agent Fuller and Eileen (listening in the next room) that his plan all along was to kill Wayne, and pretend he was still alive in order to receive the ransom. He was the one on the phone with Eileen when she was dropping off the ransom. It's at this point the movie watcher realizes that all of the scenes with Arnold and Wayne took place the day of the kidnapping, while the scenes with Eileen and the FBI occurred after Wayne was killed. The movie then flashes back to the forest the day of the kidnapping. Arnold admits to Wayne that there is no cabin with cohorts, and he shoots and kills Wayne in the forest and hides the body. When Arnold begins to spend the ransom money, he finds Wayne's letter he forgot to mail. He drops it in the mailbox shortly before being captured. Eileen returns home from the FBI office and sees Wayne's letter in that day's mail. The movie ends with Eileen reading the letter and dreaming of Wayne.