Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, Anthony Heald, Myra Carter, Catherine Keener, Amy Morton
Rated R for Strong Perverse Sexuality and Violence, and for Strong Language
When it was released, "8mm" was notorious for its violence and depravity. Seventeen years later, it's still dark and perverted, but when movies like "Fifty Shades of Grey" make millions, it's not nearly as shocking. This is a film noir murder mystery (as film noirs tend to be) that lacks only in atmosphere and a satisfying conclusion.
Tom Welles (Cage) is a private investigator known for his thoroughness and especially his discretion. One day he gets a call from a wealthy widow. Sensing connections to wealthier clientele and financial security, Welles leaps at the chance. The woman, who goes by the name Mrs. Christian (Carter), has looked into the safe of her recently deceased husband and found a disturbing item: a short 8mm film that appears to show a young woman being murdered. Welles assures Mrs. Christian that it's probably fake, but agrees to look into it to set her fears to rest. What he finds shakes him to the very core.
"8mm" did not have a happy production history. This was writer Andrew Kevin Walker's first screenplay after his surprise hit "Seven" four years earlier. The studio wanted a lighter tone for the script, but after Joel Schumacher was hired to direct it, he thought that he wouldn't have to change it. But Schumacher supported the studio and even rewrote the script himself. Walker was angry enough to walk off the set and still hasn't seen the film. Such behind the scenes drama is indicative of poor quality (see "Gigli" or "Black Sheep" for some examples). Fortunately, while on the whole the film isn't completely satisfying, there are many elements that can be counted as strengths.
First and foremost is the lead performance of Nicolas Cage. Cage has become a popular whipping boy in recent years, for reasons I can't understand. I think with overexposure (to be fair, he did lose a fortune in the Great Recession) and bad movie choices, hating on Cage has become the "in" thing to do. But he's a good anchor for the material, in fact, he's better than the script deserves. Tom Welles is smart and dedicated to the job; there's no doubt that he will get to the bottom of the mystery. Joaquin Phoenix adds some color as his sidekick, porn star clerk Max California. James Gandolfini lends his tough guy persona to the proceedings as a sleazy agent. Anthony Heald, the sniveling Dr. Chilton from "The Silence of the Lambs" plays Mrs. Christian's lawyer. And Peter Stormare, the creep du jour, turns up as Dino Velvet, "the Jim Jarmusch of S&M."
"8mm" plays like a solidly entertaining thriller for the majority of its running time. Not in league with "Seven" to be sure, but effective enough. Then at around the 90 minute mark, the film experiences a staggering drop in quality. People start acting out of character, the plot becomes a routine revenge story, and everyone appears to have undergone a severe brain cramp. And forgotten how to act. Cage's performance can't save the film, but it at least keeps it from falling apart completely.
"8mm" should really be NC-17. This is a violent and graphic film that is totally inappropriate for kids. There isn't a lot of sex, but there are images here that are not for the squeamish and very little is left up to the imagination. Compare this to something like "Eyes Wide Shut" which was at least in good taste. I also object to the film's message that sex, kinky or not, is depraved and evil. But that kind of hypocrisy is indicative of the MPAA, which apparently only endorses sex if it's portrayed in clear, negative images.