“8MM” is a movie that keeps jumping the gate and finally unravels all over the floor. A murky melange of borrowings from far superior pix like “Seven,” “Hardcore” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” this overly dark and often gratuitously nasty film about a PI investigating the source of a supposed “snuff movie” raises issues it later junks in favor of mainstream thrills and is toplined by a perf from Nicolas Cage that isn’t up to the job. With direction from Joel Schumacher that swings abruptly from faux modern noir to regulation Hollywood thriller, this looks like a tough sled in the domestic marketplace for Sony, which chose to preem the movie at the Berlin fest — perhaps wisely, as foreign looks to contribute a sizable portion of whatever money it makes.
Buffs expecting another stygian psychothriller from scripter Andrew Kevin Walker (“Seven”) are going to be massively disappointed. Walker’s latest effort is frequently simplistic in its emotions and far more routine in structure: Though his theme is again Evil with a capital E, “8MM” has none of his previous work’s clammy tension or gut-curdling moments. After initial curiosity, general auds are likely to be turned off by the coldly manipulated content, which certainly pushes the envelope for a major studio production.
Cage plays Tom Welles, a surveillance specialist who lives a comfortable existence in Harrisburg, Pa., and is well regarded in his profession but is still waiting for his break into the big time. A family man whose work keeps him away from home too often for the likes of his wife, Amy (Catherine Keener), he’s hired by Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), widow of the state’s richest businessman, to discover the identity of a teenage girl seemingly murdered by a masked man in an 8mm movie she found in her late husband’s private safe.
Opening reels are promising, with the pic settling into tightly-constructed, procedural mode as the methodical, businesslike Welles, who believes “snuff movies” are a modern myth, treats the big-bucks assignment as a missing-persons case that will pay for his baby daughter’s future education.
Establishing by way of the film’s stock that it was made some six or seven years earlier, Welles finally identifies the girl as Mary Anne Mathews, who has been missing since ’93. The trail leads to her mother, Janet (Amy Morton), and thence to L.A., where Mary Anne went in search of fame and fortune in the movies.
Checking out Hollywood’s adult bookstores, Welles makes the acquaintance of porn shop owner Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), who he hires to guide him through L.A.’s hard-core S&M movie scene. Phoenix’s louche, quipping performance brings a welcome touch of humor to the picture as it enters “hard-core” territory, with brief but surprisingly graphic glimpses of the product Welles views to find clues to Mary Anne’s history.
Welles finally gets a major break that leads him to porno moviemaker Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini), who clearly recognizes the girl’s picture, and then to New York S&M specialist Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare). More and more convinced that Mary Anne actually died in the movie, Welles hires Velvet to make a movie of his prescription, on condition that he can attend the shooting and meet Dino’s star performer, the leather-masked Machine (Chris Bauer).
It’s here, 75 minutes in, that the movie suddenly jumps the rails after its lengthy setup. For no convincing reason, the script perfunctorily dumps Phoenix’s character and leaves Cage, whose performance to this point could most kindly be described as one-dimensional, to carry the movie forward. From this point on, it largely settles into a tenebrous action-thriller, with a villain suddenly unmasked in the woodpile, Cage and his family imperiled, and a final couple of reels in which both Walker’s script and Schumacher’s direction careen all over the commercial highway.
Whereas Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore” was fueled by a parent’s moral indignation at the discovery of his daughter’s descent into iniquity, “8MM” has a central figure whose growing anger at the trade he’s investigating is due more to his indecision over whether he should step away from the job and forfeit a large check. Sidestepping any real examination of Welles’ conflicts, the script simply settles for a remark from Max: “You dance with the devil, the devil doesn’t change. The devil changes you.” Right.
As Welles, Cage simply doesn’t have the range to beef up an underwritten part, which changes from buttoned-down professional to screaming moral avenger in the space of a reel. Phoenix’s Max, the only shaded character in the film, and the only thesp with whom Cage establishes any kind of chemistry, is a severe loss at the two-thirds point from which the picture never recovers.
Gandolfini and Stormare are routine as the pornographers, with the latter over-acting badly, and Keener, whose presence throughout the movie is mostly at the other end of a phone to Cage, is undercut by a role that veers from kissy-kissy wife to irritating grouch. Far better is Morton, in a quietly affecting perf as the missing girl’s mother. Sole touch of real class is provided by vet Carter, as Christian’s restrained, dignified widow.
As would be expected from a Schumacher production, the crew mostly delivers on the technical side, with Robert Elswit’s widescreen lensing always well composed and Gary Wissner’s production design packed with detail. Sole lapse is Mychael Danna’s score, which is as eccentric in tone as the movie it accompanies.