There’s a small moment in director Joel Schumacher‘s troubling 1999 drama 8mm when a single mother, whose daughter had been missing for some time, is standing in the kitchen of her rundown home talking to a man trying to help her. She knew he was coming and made food for two in hopes he will stay, saying it would be good to eat a meal without the TV on, itself on the counter silently tuned to Wheel of Fortune. It’s supposed to be about the man, who is haunted by what he knows and she doesn’t, but as I watched it, I felt most entirely for the woman and the little ways she conveyed such great and terrible despair, tucked as she was into the corner of the room.
I think that’s what’s at the heart of this critically-maligned film, a movie that on release was ravaged by most professional critics, (save Roger Ebert, who saw more in the story than the knee-jerk reaction of its premise). Seeing it now for the second time, I think I feel the same. I watched this when it was released, now twenty-two years ago, and as a much younger man, came out of it liking it for its gritty, dangerous appeal, taking me to places I’d never even heard about back then. It was darkly fascinating. I still like it, but for different reasons, though remain appreciative of its take on human darkness.
The story centers on Tome Welles (Nicolas Cage), a private investigator with a strong reputation hired by a wealthy widow (Myra Carter), who discovers a deeply problematic reel of 8mm film in her husband’s secret vault. She asks Tom to watch, hoping he can validate the truth about the short movie, which appears to show the savage murder of a young woman by a man in a leather mask. Is is real? Is she dead? Why did her husband have it in his possession? Tom is initially repulsed by the contents, but decides to take the case and see if in fact it is a snuff film. The money is good. Very good.
This naturally leads him on a harrowing odyssey of depravity, where he eventually does find what’s happened to the girl, who she was, and why she ended up on screen. It isn’t pretty, and it gets inside of Tom in no way anything has before, ruining him from surface to core. But it’s not just him. This a tragedy for every person in the story, one that cannot possibly have happy ending. It doesn’t.
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, perhaps best known for writing Se7en, 8mm is equally disturbing but for entirely different reasons, which is one reason no doubt it was not favored by critics. Walker famously broke from the production after his original script was toned down, but even at that, this is not an easy story to get close to. That’s the point though, Schumacher purposefully being repellent where it counts to keep us always reminded of what Tom is investigating. Schumacher is a good choice for such a project, his work often aligned with heavy themes and difficult choices, no matter the slack he received for his attempts with Batman. What largely makes the most impression here is his restraint, something he rarely conceded to in his films, 8mm hardly a ‘stylish’ endeavor when compared to others like Flatliners or The Lost Boys. I really liked his noir-ish take on several key moments, where even a walk through a blackened alley tells a bigger story.
Cage also is remarkably restrained, he understanding that he is the conduit in all this, our tour guide, though ill-informed and learning as we go. So laid back is Tom in the beginning of all this, he barely has any presence, Cage delivering lines with a kind of obligatory persistence, his flaw only that he lies to his wife (the great Catherine Keener) about his smoking, which he hides with about the same gusto. It is his transformation of course that becomes the kicker, and while the film clocks in at two hours, I think could have used another twenty just to give Cage more space to let that rot of what he has stepped in catch a little more deeply. The penultimate frames suggest just how corrupted it has left him and should have been more powerful, but like many in this genre, the final discovery and moment of redemption lack the bite we want, mostly because we’ve become so invested in the mystery nothing could possibly satisfy. Same here.
Still, while Cage is very good, as is Joaquin Phoenix in a strong supporting role, it is the women who from the peripheral leave the most impact. As mentioned, Keener is terrific in the thankless wife role, as is Carter as the wheelchair-bound widow whose memory of her husband is forever stained, leading to trauma all its own. There’s also Mary Ann Mathews (Jenny Powell), who is seen only in pictures and briefly in the story’s purported stuff film, who lingers over all of it, the things we see and her lonely voice heard as she reads from her diary in Tom’s head making us care what became of her. But it is her mother, played by Amy Morton, who, at least for me, is most memorable. With only minutes of screen time, Morton carries on her shoulders years of anguish and uncertainty, clinging alone to the memory of her lost daughter and the withering hope that she will return. A brief moment on the phone when a truth she long suspected is made real is a moment that should not be forgotten.
It’s hard to recommend a movie like this. This isn’t 50 Shades of Grey sex, which is fantasized and romanticized to a ridiculous degree. This isn’t really even about sex, despite its position as an entry point to cruelty. There’s barely a moment of sexuality in it in fact, a single juxtaposition of lovemaking meant as contrast to the horrors Tom soon encounters the only thing seen on screen. What the story implies however is unseemly, hard to watch, and best made clear in an early scene when Tom, extremely well played by Cage at this point, sits in a private room watching young Mary Ann Mathews for the first time. He witnesses man at his private worst. His reaction is cutting.
Still, this is a good movie, one of those rare experiences where you should avoid the critical consensus about the angles of the story and view it for the craftsmanship. Schumacher deserves a better legacy than he has, and it is movies like this where he experimented with minimal stylization (his only misstep I think the office of a sleazy producer played by Peter Stormare) and character study that proved his worth. It ain’t Batman.