MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Nicolas Cage (Tom Welles), Joaquin Phoenix (Max California), James Gandolfini (Eddie Poole), Peter Stormare (Dino Velvet), Christopher Bauer (The Machine), Anthony Heald (Longdale), Catherine Keener (Amy Welles), Amy Morton (Janet Mathews)
According to screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, the idea behind "8MM" was a single scene: a rich old man dies, and when his safe is opened, a snuff film is found among the cash and stock certificates. A simple idea, and for most of its duration, "8MM" does a good, if somewhat stomach-churning, job of exploring a logical story that might follow such a discovery. It is only in its last half-hour, when it delves into "Death Wish"-style vigilante violence, that "8MM" looses its footing.
For those who don't know, a snuff film is a visual recording of a murder made for that express purpose. Therefore, an amateur cameraman who catches an accidental death or an episode like R. Budd Dwyer's purposefully committing suicide before TV cameras at a press conference do not count. Snuff films, at the moment, are the stuff of urban legends (the whole idea started when it was rumored that Charles Manson had filmed the Sharon Tate murder and then buried the film in the California desert). "8MM" will undoubtedly cause a small stir of curiosity as to their actual existence. According to the FBI, they do not exist, although it is easy to imagine that they do, what with the proliferation of cheap video recording equipment and plenty of sickos in our society.
Nicolas Cage stars as Tom Welles, a slick, experienced private investigator with a wife and baby daughter who is hired by a wealthy widow after what appears to be a snuff film is discovered in his safe. Welles watches the film, which seems to depict a large man in a leather mask butchering a 17-year-old girl with a machete. The widow wants Welles to find out if the film is real or not, which means he has to track down the girl. If she's alive and well somewhere, then the conclusion is obvious; if she isn't, other conclusions must be drawn.
"8MM" is constructed in the form of a mystery, with Welles tracking down the missing girl using every clue at his disposal. Walker, who also penned the superior and more disturbing "Seven" in 1995, does a fine job of creating a realistic procedural where he takes us through logical steps in the process of finding the girl. Welles finds her file in the police's missing persons cases, and discovers her name is Marybeth Mathews. When he tracks down the mother (Amy Morton), he is understandably distraught when she tells him how much she misses her daughter and how she blames herself for making Marybeth run away by slapping her.
But, that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the horror and sorrow Welles will face. His investigation takes him into the darkest, seediest depths of the pornographic underworld--beneath shoddy adult book stores and peep shows, into harrowing houses of prostitution and dungeon-like basements where greasy old men paw through stacks of cheaply made sadomasochistic videos and child pornography stacked on card tables. Welles' tour guide is a young man named Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed musician with blue hair and tattoos who works at a porn shop because he has no other place to go. Welles uses Max because he knows the territory, and likes him because he reads Truman Capote.
Eventually, Welles finds himself surrounded on all sides by the world that killed Marybeth. As Max tells him at one point, "Some of the things in here ... once you see them, you can't unsee them." Welles' descent into the netherworlds eventually bring him into contact with people like Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini), a slimy porno film producer and, most memorable, Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, a hard-core filmmaker described as "the Jim Jarmusch of S&M."
"8MM" was directed by Joel Schumacher, who gets down and dirty after the brightly lit camp of his last two "Batman" films. Schumacher has been known to delve into sensationalism-masking-as-urban-reality before--he directed Michael Douglas in white man's rage in "Falling Down" (1993) and Samuel L. Jackson in black man's rage in "A Time to Kill" (1996). When he cools down, Schumacher can be an effective director, and many of the scenes in "8MM" are quite harrowing without being overbearing. He employs strange, lyrical music with a Middle Eastern feel, and cinematographer Robert Elswit bathes most of the film in squalid darkness; when it's is over, you might have the urge to at least wash your hands.
But, as I mentioned earlier, the film as a whole comes unhinged in its third (and unnecessary) act where Welles takes matters into his own hands. Seeing Cage doing a Charles Bronson impression by exerting his moral outrage through cold-blooded murder puts a dark stain on a film that needs desperately to separate its ideological and thematic values from its subject matter. By the time all is said and done, Welles is a fairly atrocious character, and all the explaining in the world about how the things he saw changed him doesn't make it stomacheable or serviceable. That is fodder for a lesser film.
The third reel is vicious sensationalism pure and simple, designed to please the crowd who may feel that that the makers of the snuff film need to suffer a horrible death. Some may try to draw parallels the behavior of Brad Pitt's character at the end of "Seven" and Cage's behavior at the end of "8MM," but there is no comparison. In both instances, irrationality overtakes a decent man and causes him to do terrible things. The difference is in the morality. In "Seven," there is the feeling of loss because Pitt's character faces the ultimate evil and is defeated by it because he lets it overcome him. The end of "8MM," on the other hand, is tinged with hope, not because the hero stares evil in the face and survives this time, but because he also lets it overcome him. Only this time, it takes much more time and leaves two dead bodies instead of only one.
©1999 James Kendrick