The expression on my face watching 8mm mirrored Nicholas Cage’s. What a dark, disturbing film. The thing is, this is not the first time I have seen it. I first watched 8m around ten years ago on HBO. It was the kind of viewing experience I did not find entertaining, yet hoped it was attempting to put forth some message to justify its vulgar content. I just worked up my nerve to watch again to watch with a critical eye to see what I could glean.
Nicholas Cage stars as Tom Welles, a private detective who is hired by a wealthy widow who discovers a snuff film among her deceased husband’s possessions. She wants Welles to find out if it is real. Welles identifies the girlstarring in the film as Mary Ann Matthews. Matthews supposedly went off to Hollywood to become a legitimate actress, but her mother has heard nothing from her in quite some time. Welles tells her mother he will determine her fate. Does she want to know regardless of the outcome? Mrs. Matthews says she does.
Welles’ quest leads him on an odyssey through the underground world of illegal pornography in the big city. He is accompanied by an intellectual adult video store clerk named max California. California is played to the hilt by Joaquin Phoenix, one of the few bright spots in the film. Together, they discover the snuff film was real. Mary Ann was killed on screen. Welles, with Mrs. Matthews permission, murders everyone involved in the making of the snuff film.
I like classic, hard boiled private eye stories. It has been a long time since a good one has made it to film. Magnum PI is the most recent example period, but as far as theatrical releases go, I think you have to go all the way back to 1974’s Chinatown. Even then, e of the key elements that makes Chinatown great is its setting during the golden age of detective films--the ‘30’s-’40’s.
To be fair, 8mm puts forth a decent effort to mimic the tone and style of films of the era. It does so with the general coarseness of the modern day era, with a lot of perversion thrown in for good measure. I am not kidding about that, either. Snippets of actual DSM films are sprinkled throughout Welles journey through the underground world of pornography. It is like descending into hell. The further he goes, more sinister it gets until he finds the people producing literal snuff films for the sexual pleasure of those who can afford them. I am an a traditionalist. I do not appreciate modern day nihilistic horror creeping into to favored movie genres just for the sake of making it edgy and contemporary.
That explains why I did not like the film years ago. On the second viewing, I still do not like it, but I see a dichotomy I missed the first time around. Welles is a classic PI in the model of Sam Spade. He lives in a world of catching cheating spouses and recovering stolen property for clients. Traveling into the world of pornography that only exists in urban legends is far out of his comfort zone. It dawned on me, then, that 8mm is a lament the classic detective genre has to be dragged into a much harsher world rather than proudly representing the change. With that in mind, I am more forgiving of the film.\
I have drawn this conclusion because it is made very clear Welles is desperately attempting to hold on to the real world as he immerses himself in this new, harsher one. He is frequently seen talking on a cell phone with his wife, which lay in stark contrast to the leather bondage freaks he has to talk to in between calls. At one point, California even questions why a guy with ‘A wife, kids, and a dog named Champ” living in the suburbs wants to subject himself to this sort of thing. In the end, he is completely corrupted as he murders everyone involved with the snuff film in cold blood.. The most brutal realization is these people are normal, average folks getting their jollies watching a girl die. Hence, the normal and the perverse are one and the same these days.
What a poisoned box of candy that is.
8mm is all about innocence lost. It is not just about Mary Ann, whose dreams of being an actress lead her to film pornography which eventually lead to her death, but Welles, the rich widow, Mary Ann’s mother, and every other person in the film. How cynical and depressing. Not mention not worth watching. I am going to give 8mm some kudos for Phoenix’s performance and a better effort to possess some artistic merit than I previously thought, but it is not worth two hours of your time just to worsen your view of humanity. There is no sense of redemption to be had in the whole darn thing.
Rating: ** (out of 5)