1999, R, 119 min. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Starring Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Chris Bauer, Anthony Heald, Peter Stormare, Catherine Keener, Myra Carter, Amy Morton.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 26, 1999
It used to be that Brian De Palma was the one who made folks antsy. Now it's Joel Schumacher. That's chiefly because Schumacher lacks De Palma's stylized visual aesthetic -- when Schumacher goes for the sleaze, it really creeps you out, and not in ways the director likely intended. 8 MM is mainstream Hollywood's first attempt to tackle that great old urban legend, the snuff film, in which unwitting young women are ritually raped and then butchered for the express purpose of distributing the film to a select clientele. No solid examples of real snuff films have ever seen the light of day (though several years ago actor Charlie Sheen got his hands on a Japanese slasher film that so terrified him he rushed it over to the LAPD convinced it was the real deal), but the myths persist, as they always do, and have fueled the grimmer side of caffeine-fueled collegiate discussions to this day. Like those Mexican donkey shows, everybody knows they're out there, but no one's ever actually seen one. As surveillance expert Tom Welles, Cage is enlisted by wealthy dowager Mrs. Christian (Carter) to discover the identity of a young girl who appears on a Super-8 reel found in the late Mr. Christian's private safe. The film appears to be pure snuff, with a leather-hooded steroid case wielding wicked hunting knives and gobs of fear and loathing. Looking to up his profile in the cutthroat world of the modern private eye (the poor guy lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), as well scare up some future funding for his baby girl's college years, Welles takes the case and in quick order discovers the girl's identity and that the film is indeed real (although truthfully it looks like an edit-reel from David Cronenberg's Videodrome). Saddling himself with streetwise porn-store clerk Max (Phoenix) as an “in” to the nebulous world of extreme pornography, Welles tackles Los Angeles' grimy back alleys before finally chasing down his quarry in New York City's odoriferous meat-packing neighborhood. Cage, always prone to histrionics, makes the most of his hangdog face this time out -- clearly it's a role he could savor, with action, pathos, tenderness, and outright horror all over the place. What can you say about him? He's Nicolas Cage, and you either think he ought to back off the act-phetamines or push it even further. Not surprisingly, he pushes it further, and to a point, it works. It doesn't hurt things that the actor is surrounded by an ensemble of powerful character actors, including Coen Brothers regular Stormare as well as Gandolfini, Heald, and -- a welcome sight -- Keener. Still, adventurous though it may be, 8 MM has that Hollywood patina all over it. I'd like to think the project would have fared better in more eclectic hands, say Gus Van Sant, or perhaps Roman Polanski, but what's done is done and what's done is maybe not what it could have been.