Set in the porno underworld, 8 MM is an exploitation movie about an exploitation movie. Nicolas Cage plays Tom Welles, a surveillance expert known for his discretion who is hired by a rich widow when she discovers in her late husband's safe an 8-mm. snuff film. Welles is charged with finding out whether the terrified, stringy-haired girl in it was actually murdered. Meanwhile, the film we're watching wallows in its own muck.
Movies about the sex industry are always ripe for attack from both the right and the left. It would be unfortunate if the inevitable salvos aimed at 8 MM boosted the film's credibility. Its crimes are aesthetic, not political. It's a movie about pornography that has virtually no feeling for what is being desecrated; the film's true obscenity is how out of touch it is with the most basic human sympathies. The gruesomeness -- the torchings and throat-slittings and what all -- is florid in the manner of a Hollywood fantasia. Director Joel Schumacher is still in his Batman mode. He turns degradation into couture.
And yet, at the same time, the film has the brass to palm itself off as deep, Dostoevsky-deep. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker was the fun guy behind Seven, and he's up to his old tricks again: He drags in sleazo horror and then tries to exalt its significance. We're supposed to recognize in Welles our own compulsion to root out the dark side.
It doesn't work. Welles is a regular Roto-Rooter man, but there's nothing going on behind his wolfishness and dagger eyes. He's a blank, retreating not into temptation but further into blankness. His descent carries no horror because we never get to see him before the fall. He has a storybook family arrangement -- woodsy suburban sprawl; doting, concerned wife (Catherine Keener); and baby daughter -- but he's too spooked to appreciate any of it. On the road, pursuing the snuffmeisters, he calls home from dingy motel rooms, and the worry in his voice is palpable. "Is it getting to you?" his wife asks him in one of her more sympathetic moments. At other times, she's less kind. She resents him for keeping her in the dark about his mission; he's just trying to protect her, but she sees it as more of a connubial communication problem. "You better start talking if you want to stay married," she warns him, when it's all he can do just to stay alive. (To shut her up, maybe Welles should have fessed up to her. He could have said, "Honey, you just won't believe the nipple clamps I saw today.") The wife comes across almost as villainous as the porn purveyors, and yet, in what looks like an afterthought, she's also around to offer up her balm when Tom finally blasts his way out of the gunk.
When a director like Scorsese or De Palma or even Paul Thomas Anderson moves in on the sex-and-grunge subculture, you can feel the hot breath of hellfire on your face. These directors have a highly developed sense of sin -- probably the first prerequisite for making a good film about porn (or a good porn film). Schumacher has a highly developed sense of box office. Sure, he and Walker cram in a bit of Christian symbolism near the end -- a character is crucified with a crossbow, for example -- but it's just stained-glass-window dressing. There isn't all that much difference between this film and a Nightmare on Elm Street flick, except that at least the Nightmare movies are honest about what they're up to: cheap thrills.
In 8 MM, the bogeymen are high and low. The depraved ultrarich indulge their snuff thrills because they can afford to; the back-alley porn marauders wield their crossbows because they like it. The only character with any depth is the street-smart adult-bookstore clerk Max (Joaquin Phoenix), who acts as Welles's guide through the porno hades of L.A. and New York. Max is one of those lost souls who tried to make it as an underground musician and got sidetracked by Hollyweird. With his arm-length geisha tattoos and pierced eyebrows, he's like a depraved satyr needling Welles's weaknesses. "Do you get turned on?" he rasps as they make their way through a flea market of slime. Through sheer force of talent, Phoenix makes Max the star of the movie. He's atrocious but also recognizably human, pathetic. You'd hate to see him snuffed. As for everybody else connected to this sorry spectacle, how about banishment?