Release Date: February 26th, 1999 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joel Schumacher Actors: Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, Anthony Heald, Chris Bauer, Catherine Keener, Amy Morton, Jenny Powell
he film starts rather deceptively, building up its dark topics with a lead character plagued by small inconveniences, such as an uneventful job, a house in a small town, a plain, nagging wife, an infant child, and the necessity to hide his penchant for smoking. It’s actually a method of contrast, demonstrating a “normal” man’s descent into extreme human perversion when he travels down the wrong path during an investigation. It falters in the execution, however, leaving little resonance and constructing even less of a motive for the characters to behave the way they do. What starts as a morbid murder/mystery ends in an unlikely action/thriller.
Private Investigator and surveillance specialist Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is hired by wealthy widow Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter) to investigate a mysterious article discovered in her late husband’s safe. With the utmost discretion, he’s to determine the authenticity of an apparent snuff film, in which a man in sadomasochistic gear seemingly murders a young girl. Treating the situation like a missing persons case, Tom is able to identify the girl and locate her mother, as well as gather information about the company that manufactured the film stock.
After replaying the film repeatedly and picking up a few extra clues, he enlists the help of an adult video store clerk, Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), who takes him deeper into the seedy underworld of pornography, prostitution, bondage, fetish, and simulated rape. What Welles is really after is legitimate snuff-makers – but even amongst the most depraved artists, he is met with consternation. “There’s no such thing as snuff,” insists one specific degenerate. Tom’s biggest lead comes in the form of sleazy casting director Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini), who has ties to underground hardcore pornographer Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare).
The most interesting aspects of the film are not the relatively unseen imagery of deviant sexuality in mainstream filmmaking, but rather the ideas behind a missing girl’s fate and the supporting role of Joaquin Phoenix. Max reads Capote hidden in the cover of an adult novel and is generally more intelligent than his appearance would denote (it’s an intriguing persona that isn’t utilized enough). As for themes, the state of the lost child presents the mother with the ultimatum of either choosing to know the truth, even if it’s horrifying, or to go on hoping for the best, but with permanent uncertainty. The creation of snuff films in the first place is a precursor to the graphic depictions in the torture porn genre, made famous by films like “Hostel” and “Saw.”
Unfortunately, “8MM” employs a rather odd choice of musical accompaniment, one highly influenced by Middle Eastern sounds (foreign vocals, tambourines, and plenty of percussion), which never fit smartly with the drama at hand. Cage himself is rarely convincing in the part of a man in over his head; his dialogue is forced and his anger and rage are almost comical. While the subject matter is undoubtedly dark, riddled with sexual aberration and bloody violence, the suspense and emotion aren’t consistent, resulting in a bewildering assortment of revelations and a vigilante ending that is preposterously unsuitable.
– Mike Massie