8mm exhibits bad taste and may be shocking to most, but it felt to me like a movie deserving of some praise. The film tracks the descent of Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage), a private investigator who delves into the nasty, immoral world of underground pornography in search of a missing teenage girl. What unfolds is a very dark and often sinister crime drama that sees Cage’s character become deeply sickened, though somewhat fascinated, by what he sees around him.
Notoriously panned by critics upon its release, 8mm was by no means a milestone in the career of Cage, even though it contains ones of his most powerful performances. After his character is handed an 8mm “snuff film” of a girl (seemingly) being murdered, he is faced with a number of violent and disturbing confrontations, leading to his own psychological turmoil and becoming isolated from his family.
Joel Schumacher brings a great amount of suspense and twisted horror, showing similarities to David Fincher’s Seven. The atmosphere is one of the main features that I judge this film as being a success: The dark, surprisingly-calm underground sex trades are served as a strong contrast to the quiet, secluded life of family man Welles.
There’s a couple of scenes, in particular: One taken place in a disused warehouse, that shows Cage’s character tied to a bed and confronted by a stocky man in a gimp mask as his family and friend are threatened with a crossbow. Another sees Welles one-on-one with the porn talent scout inside an abandoned, graffiti-ridden building, which eventually pushes his calm and collective nature to the edge.
There is a lot of emphasis on the relationship between Welles and his wife/daughter away from the seediness of his latest investigation. Perhaps too much. Every phone call seems to be a carbon copy of the last, with the usual “love you, miss you, honey” type stuff that wouldn’t look out of place in a romantic comedy.
8mm is best when Welles is diving head-first into unknown territory, building up the suspense scene by scene, as the grimy, moody Indian-inspired score hammers away in the background. The pornography isn’t particularly shocking, nor is it intended to be; the focus is on child abduction, sexual violence and exploitation and how far people are willing to go for the sake of profit.
Cage is assertive and his emotion seems genuine during periods of his character’s psychological turmoil. James Gandolfini (The Mexican, The Sopranos) is just as impressive, playing the sleazy porn talent scout Eddie; while movie director Dino Velvet, played by Peter Stormare (Bad Boys II) is the most predatory and freakishly obsessive character out of everyone.
Then there’s Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) as Max California, a local porn store worker. He’s seen as an outsider with connections to the dark corners of the porn business. He has purple hair, wears women’s clothes and pretends to read “real literature” behind the cover of ‘Anal Secretary’. He’s weird, but likeable. When he teams up with Cage, 8mm almost becomes a mismatched buddy movie — though it never strays from the seriousness of the subject.
Understandably, most people will be put off by the subject matter in 8mm; and the critical reputation of the film will hardly do anything to convince most people otherwise. But it’s intense, has plenty of interesting characters and steers clear of preaching any ethical, moral attitudes between right and wrong. In fact, the final confrontation is probably the most nerve-racking, anti-moralistic set-piece of the lot. As “Machine” — the man in the mask — sums up, “The things I do — I do them because I like them. Because I want to.”