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8 MM (1999)

Review by Justin Felix

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker.
Directed by Joel Shumacher.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, and Peter Stormare.
Rated R (contains intense graphic violence, nudity, and profanity) 123 mins.
Synopsis: Private detective Tom Welles is hired by a wealthy widow to uncover the origins of a snuff film owned by her late husband. After uncovering the authenticity of the film, Welles descends into an underground world of perverse pornographers seeking vigilante revenge on the filmmakers.

Comments: 8 MM is one of the more disturbing mainstream movies I have seen in a long time. Though it doesn't present a snuff film (a movie which documents a person's murder for real, usually during or after some form of sexual act) as explicitly as the cult classic Mute Witness and violence as shockingly as, say, Natural Born Killers, 8 MM stays in your head long after you see it. It is not fun to watch; see something else if you get upset by realistic, sadistic violence. This film's violence and perverse sexuality skirts closely into NC-17 territory. For those with strong stomachs, however, 8 MM is an intelligent, worthwhile thriller, especially during its second hour.

Nicolas Cage, after a couple ho-hum movies, returns to material which allows him to utilize his strong acting abilities. As Tom Welles, a private detective and caring family man to a wife and newly-born daughter, Cage skillfully and convincingly portrays a decent man whose unwavering energy slowly transforms into obssession and violence as he is pulled into a nightmarish world of underground pornographers and brutal sexual deviants. Serving as a guide to this world is Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a struggling songwriter named Max California. California, despite his name, is a surprisingly intelligent and complex character, and Phoenix does a very good job at slowly pulling the audience to sympathy for the character. The real star of the movie, though, must be Peter Stormare. Stormare played the "really, really evil guy" in Fargo, and his character, Dino Velvet, in this movie seems about ten times more evil and unpredictable. His performance is very chilling.

8 MM's success may hardly be surprising. It was directed by Joel Schumacher, who, hopefully, saw this film as an apology for the absolutely dreadful Batman and Robin. Before directing the last two Batman duds, however, Schumacher was responsible for several well-made horror flicks: Lost Boys, Flatliners and Falling Down. 8 MM certainly joins the rank of these minor classics and is perhaps most reminiscent of Falling Down in that both films present an average man who self-destructs before the audience's eyes. 8 MM was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, who also penned the Academy Award-winning thriller Seven a few years back. Like Seven, 8 MM is full of dialogue which haunts you well after leaving the theater. Welles is searching for answers. How could anyone possibly drug and then slowly, methodically, sadistically kill a teenaged girl to make a film? When confronting one of the perpretrators at the end, the murderer responds that there are no reasons. He just enjoys it. That, Walker seems to suggest, is where the real terror lays: not in the crime itself but in the fact that rational motives do not exist.

A couple minor faults led me to my four-star rating (five stars is the highest rating I give). One, I found it a little difficult, early on, to accept the fact that a hardened private detective would get physically disgusted when first seeing a snuff film. Yes, snuff is a horrible thing, but a detective of Welles' caliber has probably encountered awful things before. Second, some of the clues Welles gathers are too convenient. He discovers, for example, the victim's diary in her private bathroom, despite the fact the the police, the FBI, and her own mother have all investigated the room before. Finally, the closing scene seemed trite and improbable considering the rest of the film.

Despite the above criticisms, 8 MM is an engrossing story. One of the best scenes in the film occurs toward the end as a crazed Welles, who no longer seems like a hero, brutally beats one of the pornographers responsible for the snuff film. He pulls a gun on the man and, for a relatively long amount of time, struggles to decide whether or not to kill him. He then leaves the building and calls the victim's mother, in the middle of the night, to basically see if she would support the action. The entire scene is tense, unpredictable, and emotionally charged. Rarely, anymore, do horror films or thrillers provoke suspense in me as 8 MM, with scenes like this, did. 8 MM is most certainly not for the faint of heart. This is a graphic, oftentimes unflinching, look into the darkness which resides in both ordinary and extraordinary people. If you're prepared for a film of this nature, I give it an enthusiastic recommendation.

Rating:

(Out of five)

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