movie review by
Gary Johnson


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For its first hour and 15 minutes, Eight Millimeter is an efficient, edgy thriller. Thankfully it's also the kind of movie where the filmmakers don't mistake nonsensical plot twists for suspense. Many filmmakers working in the thriller genre aren't satisfied until they've pulled four or five fake endings, where the killer keeps lurching back to life. But Eight Millimeter sets up its situation in relatively simple fashion: Nicolas Cage stars as a private detective named Tom Welles who is hired by a wealthy widow to investigate the contents of an 8mm film found in her late husband's private vault. The film appears to depict the murder of a young woman. Is the film real? "All I want is to know this atrocity is fake I want the proof," she says.

Unlike so many movies that glamorize their less savory aspects, Eight Millimeter makes Cage's descent into the world of sado-masochistic pornography look like a descent into hell. The prostitutes that inhabit this world are sweaty and ugly. The producers are sneering perverts who don't hesitate asking for blow jobs from potential starlets. And the shops that deal in violent pornography are dark and seamy. Cage descends into basements filled with fly-by-night porn peddlers, each with their own little tables, like baseball card sellers at a sports memorabilia convention.

Max California (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes Welles' tour guide into this world. Max is an adult bookstore clerk who secretly reads Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, hiding the book beneath the cover of an x-rated novel lest his reputation be tarnished. Max California and Tom Welles grouse past the vendors--"KIDS" says the divider tab in a box filled with pornographic photographs--looking for a smut peddler who might just have the real thing: a real "snuff" movie (i.e. a movie that shows a real murder). Welles thought they were simply an urban myth, but are they? If Welles can find someone who has actually produced a snuff movie, he feels he'll be that much closer to solving the mystery of the 8mm film.

Director Joel Schumacher takes us into this world with an unflinching eye. He doesn't particularly want to titillate us. He wants us to become outraged at how easily pornographers hawk their wares and find willing subjects for their films, people willing to be exploited, people who can disappear with nary a trace. As disturbing as this environment might be, Schumacher never gets very far beneath the surfaces of his characters. In particular, his camera provides precious few hints of how this world affects Tom Welles. We know his marriage is somewhat rocky because the first thing Welles does when he gets home after being away for several weeks is to check out the refrigerator. He doesn't go looking for his wife (played by Catherine Keener) and child immediately. And he blatantly lies to her about not smoking. And Welles frequently gets so engrossed in his work that he forgets to call his wife. But what is his investigation work really doing to his psyche?

Max California keeps warning him: "When you dance with devil you don't change the devil. The devil changes you." But the filmmakers don't know how to depict what's happening inside Tom Welles. Max warns, "There are things you're gonna see that you can't unsee. They get in your head." But unlike another thriller that delved into life at its seamiest, Se7en, we never experience the building rage in our hero--not until he pops. In Se7en, the movie successfully got inside the head of Brad Pitt's character and let us understand the rage he felt at the atrocities he encountered. But Schumacher isn't half the filmmaker that David Fincher is. Schumacher is the same guy that effectively killed the Batman franchise with the dreadful Batman and Robin.

Comparisons with Se7en are appropriate because both movies were scripted by the same man--Andrew Kevin Walker. But whereas the psychological effects upon Brad Pitt in Se7en came gradually, in Eight Millimeter, the psychological effects hit all at once. The movie completely depends upon the audience being convinced that Tom Welles would turn into Dirty Harry (and mete out justice for the movie's final 45 minutes) after his immersion in sado-masochistic pornography. But any rage that the movie provides is strictly generic.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]