Crime films, frequently inspired by crime fiction, concentrates on criminals, their crimes, and (sometimes) on the detection of those crimes. The famed Noir films of the 1940s and 1950s, such as The Killers and Double Indemnity, feature psychologically complex, morally dubious, and world-weary male protagonists who are unable to escape their pasts, even if they did not actually commit any crimes. Contemporary crime films, whether drama like The Usual Suspects and The Godfather, or a dark comedy like In Bruges — all of which were Oscar-winners — often feature protagonists who are hardened criminals themselves. Viewers are sometimes outraged by such sympathetic portrayals of criminals, as some audience members were when they saw Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, in which the protagonist Frank White, played by Christopher Walken, insists to the detectives pursuing him that he is “just a businessman.”
The 1999 crime film 8MM (Eight Millimeter), directed by Joel Schumacher from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), doesn’t present viewers with an already world-weary protagonist who is unable to escape his morally dubious past, nor with morally ambiguous criminals. In 8MM, the protagonist is initially a nice guy just trying to make a good living for him and his family, and the bad guys are really terribly bad bad guys, although they have some great lines. This crime film concentrates instead on its male protagonist, a private investigator searching for a missing teenage girl, as he descends into the dark world of underground, illegal pornography, only to dissolve into violence and criminal acts himself.
Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage, in his best dramatic role) lives with his wife Amy (Catherine Keener) and their baby daughter in a totally suburban, midwest neighborhood, from where he runs his home-based “surveillance” business, i.e., private investigations.
For some reason never clearly explained, the Welles family is having a difficult time financially, despite his steady employment taking photos of adulterous spouses and other misbehaving family members.
Enter wealthy, wheelchair-bound Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), who has discovered something horrific in her late husband’s safe: an 8mm film that seems to portray a young girl being murdered. Though Welles reassures Widow Christian that “snuff films” — illegal pornographic films where someone is actually killed for the express purpose of the viewers’ sexual titillation — are more an “urban legend” and are usually faked, she offers unlimited funds to prove that the film is fake and the girl still alive. Welles explains that if he treats the girl as a “missing person,” he could gain more access to her identity, family, and whereabouts.
Though the family lawyer Longdale (Anthony Heald) is present at this initial meeting and has already seen the film in question, Welles tells Widow Christian that he will deal directly with her, and only with her. Welles believes that the money he earns proving this horrific “snuff film” is fake will enable him and his family to live comfortably and “happily ever after.”
Unfortunately, this is not a fairy tale, and the illegal porn film leads Welles into the desolate and horrifying world of runaway and abducted children. Once he identifies the girl in the film as Mary Anne Mathews (Jenny Powell), who left home after a fight with her still-grieving mother Janet (Amy Morton), he is able to track Mary Anne’s movements. When he finds her abandoned suitcase in a shelter, Tom begins to suspect that Mary Anne, who wanted to be a film star, may have ended up a victim of the porn industry.
Not the legitimate porn industry, however: the illegal one, where people in the films are actually raped, severely assaulted against their will, and sometimes, apparently, killed.
In an adult film rental / bookstore, complete with “battery-operated vaginas,” Tom meets the wise-cracking cashier Max (Joaquin Phoenix), who once aspired to be a musician but lost his band, and who reads Capote’s In Cold Blood at work by disguising the book with the cover of another, sleazier work. Max is quick-witted and intelligent, and because Tom looks so much like a law enforcement officer, he quickly learns that it would be impossible for him to learn anything about the darker side of the porn industry without Max’s help.
Even with Max at his side, however, Welles begins to learn just how dangerous the illegal porn industry is: the two are constantly assaulted and threatened with death themselves as they attempt to find “snuff films.”
When Welles finds a sleazy talent scout, Eddie (James Gandolfini), who seems to recognize the missing Mary Anne from a photograph but who denies knowing her, Welles goes after Eddie by insinuating that he knows what Eddie and his pals did to the girl.
Eddie leads Welles and Max, now going by the code-name “Max California,” to New York and to an infamous illegal pornographer Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare). Velvet makes unique films for private viewing for healthy commissions, and his films always include the hooded man known as “Machine” (Chris Bauer), who appears in the 8mm film found in Mr. Christian’s safe and who seems to have killed the missing girl.
In increasingly dark, sordid, and haunting environs, Welles pursues the missing girl and the men who made the purported “snuff film.” Plunging ever deeper into the dark world of illegal pornography, drifting away from his wife, daughter, and the mundane security of his former life, Welles is changed in ways he could not have imagined. The closer he gets to discovering the truth about the missing girl and disturbing film, the more endangered he is himself, as is everyone connected with him, including his “partner” Max, as well as Welles’ wife and baby daughter.
Many critics felt Cage was “miscast” as Welles, and most professional reviewers disliked 8MM intensely, accusing it of being “nearly as creepy, sleazy, and manipulative as the pornographic films it… condemns” or of being “a relentlessly murky odyssey… [emerging] as a secondhand Seven” (the same screenwriter wrote both films). Janet Maslin of the New York Times found Cage’s character “unrelievedly drab,” but added that “[though the film] includes profanity, partial nudity and ugly violence, its depictions of pornography are “relatively discreet.“
Roger Ebert was one of the few professional reviewers who actually admired 8MM, writing that it “raises moral questions that the audience has to deal with, one way or another,” making 8MM a “real film“
that deals with the materials of violent exploitation films, but in a non-pornographic way; it would rather horrify than thrill… It is a real film. Not a slick exploitation exercise with all the trappings of depravity but none of the consequences. Not a film where moral issues are forgotten in the excitement of an action climax.
Intense and edgy, 8 MM, is not a film for the faint-hearted. Though the film never graphically portrays the pornographic aspects of its subject matter, the disintegration of its protagonist from quiet and respected family man into desperate and violent avenger is disturbing: it may be uncomfortable for some viewers. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.