Oscar winner Nicolas Cage stars as Tom Welles, a surveillance expert with an inauspicious home-based business. Whilst he spends the majority of his time on mundane and respectable work, he is still awaiting the case that will secure his professional reputation. His latest case involves a reel of 8mm film discovered in a dead man's safe which seemingly depicts the murder of a young girl. As Welles investigates further, he is continually disturbed by the sordid nature of the work, and comes into contact with a streetwise clerk called Max California (Joaquin Phoenix). He offers to help guide Welles through the illicit world of pornography and snuff movies in order to discover the identity of the deceased girl and her possible murderer.