Directed by Joel Schumacher
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Peter Stormare, Anthony Heald, Amy Morton, Myra Carter.
1999 125 minutes
Rated: (for extreme violence, sexual situations, nudity, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 27, 1999.
Who could have possibly predicted that the antichrist director who all but buried the "Batman" franchise with the last two installments, Joel Schumacher, could strike back triumphantly and almost fully redeem himself with "8mm," which is perhaps his best film to date. Of course, Schumacher has been good before (1990's "Flatliners," 1993's "Falling Down," 1996's "A Time to Kill"), but nothing he has made has quite been this dark, intelligent, and disturbing, as it delves deeply into the world of S&M, porn, and the infamous myth of snuff films.
Every time Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage), a surveillance expert, comes home to his loving wife, Amy (Catherine Keener), and baby girl, it seems that he always has to leave again to carry out another job. Amy cares for him, and knows that the large amount of money he makes is going to help them out a great deal, and as their baby's college money, but hates when he leaves them alone. At the start of "8mm," Tom is hired by the recently widowed, elderly Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), after she finds a ghastly Super-8 snuff film in her husband's safe that allegedly shows a solemn teenage girl being brutally murdered by a large man dressed in black leathered S&M garb. "I want to know if this atrocity is true," Mrs. Christian says, and offering him an enormous sum of money, Tom, who is equally upset and outraged at what is on the film, leaves his family again to go in search of the girl on the film, and to find out if she was actually killed, or if it was staged. The first thing Tom discovers is that the brand of film it was made on has been out of manufacturing since 1992, and while searching through the millions of missing persons reports at the police station, Tom, to his amazement, finds the information about the girl, named Mary Ann. This revelation leads him to the girl's lonely, depressed mother (Amy Morton), and after finding Mary Ann's hidden diary in which she last wrote to her mother about running away and going to Hollywood, Tom sets off to L.A. and into the world of adult films, where he meets Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), a helpful, smarter-than-expected young man who works at one of the porno shops and offers to help him out.
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker (who wrote the equally downbeat "Se7en"), it is rare for a decidedly big-budget mainstream film to have the courage to delve deeply and thoughtfully into such risky and unsettling territory, but that is exactly what "8mm" does. There is no doubt many people who will be completely turned off by this superb, unconventional motion picture, and that it actually recieved an R-rating by the usually strict MPAA is particularly surprising. There isn't much in the way of gore, but the movie is very, very violent, and at times is almost too difficult to take because of the somber, controversial subject matter.
"8mm" is probably the smartest film I have seen that deals with the sick nature of S&M and snuff, and although at times graphic, director Schumacher thankfully does not exploit the goings-on, but instead, is wise to deal with it in a ruminant manner, unveiling the very frightening and unstable minds of certain people's psyche. Adding another thought-provoking layer to the story involves the central character of Tom who is a caring family man at the start, but as he becomes involved more and more in this "other" shady world, ultimately finds himself being pushed to the limit, even having to contemplate murder himself, and somewhat unsure if he can ever return to the life he once knew.
There is one scene, in particular, in "8mm" that must rank as one of the most nail-bitingly suspenseful film moments in recent memory, a seemingly endless and scary scene played exclusively to the repetitive, atmospheric sound of a record player's hand repeatedly running over the rough grooves at the end of a record. Director Schumacher milks this sequence for all its worth, as he does on several other occassions, and thus helps to make "8mm" all the more effective and tense. Also helping immeasurably is the odd, marvelously orchestrated music score by Mychael Danna. Strangely enough, while watching the film, due to where certain things take place, it actually reminded me off watching an actual snuff movie, and I have unfortunately seen one, a feature film entitled "Snuff" from the 1970s that was banned in several countries and depicted a woman being butchered in the dispicable final reel (this "murder" was later decided to be a fake, albeit realistic, reenactment).
The performances are all rather memorable, with Nicolas Cage once again acting as the likable, if flawed, character that we follow throughout. Also notable are Phoenix, in a role that is easily more satisfying and fully-developed than some of his recent ventures, such as in "U-Turn" and "Clay Pigeons;" James Gandolfini as a seedy porn producer; and Amy Morton, who has a touching turn as the victim's grieving mother. Catherine Keener, outstanding in all of her independent film, such as 1996's "Walking and Talking," 1998's "The Real Blonde," and 1998's "Your Friends & Neighbors," helps to breathe unexpected life into the relatively thankless role of Tom's wife (although she is given a few moving moments in the latter section).
As far as I am concerned, "8mm" has only one noticable flaw and that is the slightly disappointing climax set in a cemetary during a rain storm. By choosing to go this route, the film suddenly moves into cliched thriller territory, but is preserved, thanks to the perfect concluding scenes that are nothing short of satisfying. Not only is "8mm" Schumacher's best film, but it is Cage's most assured work since his Oscar-winning role in "Leaving Las Vegas," and the screenplay by Walker is brave and astute, turning what could have been a cheap-thrills freak show into what will most likely go down as one of the most daring and attentive films of the year.
©1999 by Dustin Putman