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
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.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman