Nicolas Cage and Jenny Powell in 8MM (1999)



(director: Joel Schumacher; screenwriter: Andrew Kevin Walker; cinematographer: Robert Elswit; editor: Mark Stevens; cast: Nicolas Cage (Tom Welles), Joaquin Phoenix (Max California), Catherine Keener (Amy Welles), James Gandolfini (Eddie Poole), Peter Stormare (Dino Velvet), Chris Bauer (Machine), Anthony Heald (Longdale), Amy Morton (Mrs. Mathews), Myra Carter (Mrs. Christian), Jenny Powell (Mary Anne Mathews); Runtime: 123; Columbia Pictures; 1998)

“Joel Schumacher’s “8 MM” jumps into the underworld of pornography as quickly as a scared rabbit scurries under a fence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Joel Schumacher’s “8 MM” jumps into the underworld of pornography as quickly as a scared rabbit scurries under a fence. It focuses on the makers of “snuff” films, those who are so vile that they make the ones in the regular porno business seem like angels in comparison. Nicolas Cage as Tom Welles is an ambitious family man from Harrisburg, Pa., whose father was a coal miner but he went to college on an academic scholarship, choosing to do surveillance work because that’s where the big money is at. He has slowly built up a reputation in the investigative field because of his skills and discretion and he finally gets what he thinks will be his big break when a coal factory tycoon dies and his widow, Mrs. Christian (Myra), on her lawyer’s (Heald) recommendation, chooses him to find out if the “snuff film” she found in her husband’s safe, actually happened. And if it did, she wants to know if the girl is alive or dead.

Tom kisses his loving wife Amy (Keener) and his baby daughter goodbye, and tells them don’t ask questions, I’m doing this so we can all live better. Catherine Keener, a normally interesting actress, has nothing to do in this role but whine and act like a doting suburban wife. All the Charles Bronson-like heroics are reserved for Cage in a role that is more incredulous than believable and less introspective than ridiculous, as he heads for Cleveland after tracking down who the missing girl is through the computer files of the missing persons records and identifies the girl as Mary Anne Matthews. In Cleveland he talks with her mother (Morton) and is able to track the white trash 16-year-old girl’s next destination as Hollywood. Cage, at all times, seems wooden and never relaxed in the role. It makes one nervous just watching him trying to act a role he can’t seem to get the handle on.

All Cage’s reactions against the evil people he is up against are knee-jerk reactions, nothing seems heartfelt. It seems as if it is a set-up for the middle-class audience, the ones the film hopes to attract, giving them a chance to experience through Cage’s actions some vicarious feelings of revenge. Cage will enforce the law vigilante-style from his nebulous authoritative position of private investigator. What the director thought he was getting, was Tom searching for the evil in himself. But just never came off that way and for a number of reasons, not the least of them being was that Cage wasn’t right for the part and that he was never seen in a reflective moment undergoing a life change; yet, his character is supposed to be about someone who goes through a major lifestyle change. The dramatics here seemed misplaced as if they were intended more for one of the director’s cartoonlike Batman flicks, something the director brought more life to than he did with this film.

The screenwriter is Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote ”Seven” as he toiled at his day job as a clerk in a New York City Tower Records store. He again has a protagonist who looks at evil and is amazed by it. But this time the look seems artificial as Cage is not really an introspective person, an outsider in the system, he is just someone trying to make a better life for himself at a job he is good at. And that is the main problem with the film, it has a false gritty noir look. It never works on the intellectual level either, instead it attacks the emotions and cheapens its efforts by pretending to delve into Cage’s angst.

The film seems most comfortable when it is in the middle of its soft porn scenes, as Tom reaches the sleazy streets of Hollywood and watches some porno films in his motel room. He finds an adult book store and befriends the clerk, Max California (Phoenix), into helping him get around in the porn world. It’s a world Tom makes faces at, showing us how nice a guy he is by not liking this sleazy form of sex.

We know Max is a good-guy because he is reading Truman Capote, not some porn novel, while working behind the cash register. Tom is so impressed with Max that he hires him to locate the maker of the snuff film he is looking for and the two become soulmates, sort of telling us they both do what they do because they have to make a living and are blind to the consequences of their work. Max once had ambitions to be a musician but in Los Angeles the sex trade is such an easy lure that it takes many an aspiring artist down its sleazy path, as they think there is no other way for them to make a living.

The heavies are all personifications of pure evil. Machine (Bauer), Eddie Poole (Gandolfini), and Dino Velvet (Stormare), are the ones Tom must come up against to find his answer if the girl is still alive. There is one other mystery evil man, the producer of the film, the one who pocketed most of the money, cheating his trio of partners. Machine is the masked one in the films, the one who knifes the girl to death. Poole is the contact and distributor of the film. Velvet is the tacky artist; he makes the films and is considered to be the Jim Jarmusch of S&M films. His creepy studio of torture devices and knives and whips will be the place where Tom battles with these perverts, seeking revenge for the missing girl he completely identifies with.

The film’s appeal is to an audience looking for easy answers to solve today’s societal problems. The box office mistake of this film is that it took itself seriously somehow believing it created a thinking man’s picture, and thereby lost both the art-house and general mass audiences. Those who enjoy exploitative gore films must have found something lacking, just as the art-house audience did. The film tried too hard to be something it wasn’t and never found what it was supposed to be.

8MM had perhaps one line in it that didn’t seem phony, when the masked killer is unmasked and says: “The things I do–I do them because I like them. Because I want to. I wasn’t abused as a child. I don’t hate my parents.”