There are some people, I’m sure, who will defend the pointlessly ugly and monotonous 8MM because of those very qualities. It’s dark, twisted, repulsive, daring! Let’s stand back and admire the filmmakers’ stark integrity! Uh, no, let’s not. If I lifted a rock and pointed a camera at the squirming things underneath for two hours, would you praise my uncompromising vision? No, you’d say it’s gross and stupid. 8MM sets a new record for gross stupidity; it drags us through the dregs and doesn’t even reward us with anything original.
A can of film is found in the secret vault of a recently deceased billionaire. It appears to be a snuff film — pornography climaxing in the murder of a teenage girl. The billionaire’s widow hires private investigator Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) to find out whether the film is real or faked. The assignment starts Tom — a family man with a wife (Catherine Keener) and baby daughter perpetually waiting at home — on a numbingly squalid odyssey through the porn underworld. Along the way, he picks up an unlikely partner — Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), a porn-shop clerk who seems to know every two-bit sleaze merchant on both coasts. They make a funny team for a while, a bit of levity on this grim journey, and the movie could have used a whole lot more of the smart, quirky Phoenix.
My expectations for 8MM were split, because the director is Joel Schumacher, who either banalizes anything he touches (A Time to Kill, Falling Down) or turns it into eye candy for hyperactive kids (Batman Forever and Batman and Robin); yet the screenwriter is Andrew Kevin Walker, who penned the diabolical serial-killer entry Seven. Judging from 8MM and Seven, Walker likes to explore squalor and madness; his work on Seven managed to be philosophical while packing a sensationalistic, National Enquirer wallop. Here, though, he just rubs our noses in slime, and it’s less shocking than degrading and depressing. We get glimpses of pathetic men lurking in underground fringe-porn shops, browsing videos of rape, bestiality, child pornography. It’s as if Walker had just zeroed in on one deadly sin, lust, and the movie shows no sexuality — much less any erotica — that isn’t diseased and foul. Anti-porn zealots should love 8MM, yet another conservative movie in disguise.
In the past, good actors have saved Schumacher from disaster, but nobody here can do much with their roles — not the usually amusing James Galdolfini (as a sleaze-porn producer), not the hatchet-faced Peter Stormare (as “Dino Velvet,” a gonzo-porn director in the mold of Gregory Dark), and especially not poor Catherine Keener, stuck at home whining on the phone while cuddling her baby in every possible shot. Nicolas Cage, too, seems to be coasting; this is essentially his yearning, puppy-eyed performance from City of Angels, a fatal mistake here. Such a sensitive, floppy-eared soul hardly seems credible as a private investigator (he also sets a movie record for gun-dropping). All Cage has going for him is his decency and determination to crack the mystery.
But then it’s such a lame mystery. 8MM reminded me of a parade of far better films: The Silence of the Lambs was better at detailing the sadness of self-hating girls kidnapped and killed to satisfy evil pleasures; Strange Days and Videodrome got deeper into the implications of snuff films; Man Bites Dog, a great obscure film from 1993, probed the stark pornography of murder in ways that were truly shocking; Hardcore, modelled on John Ford’s The Searchers, had a more compelling narrative arrow (the father rescuing his wayward daughter); and Seven at least provided a damn motive for its killer, twisted though it was.
What’s repulsive about 8MM isn’t what it shows us; it’s that it shows us these things and then tells us there’s no meaning to any of it. In 8mm, we keep getting spritzed with callow nihilism: People make snuff films “because they can,” people watch young girls butchered because they “felt like it,” people kill and torture because they “want to.” There’s no answer; fuck it; this is how the world is. Gee, thanks, guys. The true meaning of that girl’s death, finally, is a big opening weekend for Columbia.