Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Joel Schumacher
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Joaquim Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, Catherine Keener, Anthony Heald, Chris Bauer, Myra Carter, Amy Morton.

This violent, confronting and unrelentingly sleazy crime thriller ultimately seems like Hardcore crossed with the more violent elements of Death Wish.

Pennsylvania based private investigator Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is hired to investigate a spool of 8mm film that turns up in the belongings of a dead industrialist. The film is a “snuff” movie, in which a young girl is brutally murdered on camera by a man in a leather mask. Welles is hired to trace the movie’s origins, and determine whether the girl was actually murdered or not.

What begins as a seemingly conventional detective thriller soon descends into a heart of darkness as Welles is drawn into the unfamiliar, sordid pornographic underworld of Los Angeles and New York. This is a world where teenage runaways and hopeful starlets become the innocent prey of amoral predators, and indecently wealthy and powerful businessmen can afford to have snuff films made purely for their own vicarious pleasure.

The more Welles learns about this amoral world, the further he finds himself drifting away from his comfortable domestic life with his wife (Catherine Keener) and baby daughter. He feels that the only way he can cleanse himself of this grubby environment is through killing the pornographers themselves. The fact that Welles can only find redemption for his lost soul by becoming a vigilante raises a number of dubious moral issues. However, unlike the controversial Lolita, which at least makes an effort to explore tricky moral issues, 8MM steadfastly remains a blank page, almost as though it lacks the courage of its convictions.

Even though 8MM is undeniably and hypnotically compelling, despite its repellent subject matter, it certainly does not make for an entertaining time at the movies. But then again, we wouldn’t expect something light from Andrew Kevin Walker, who previously wrote the gritty thriller Seven. Walker seems to have a predilection for exploring moral corruption and twisted psychopaths. This is an uncharacteristically dark and disturbing thriller from Joel Schumacher, whose previous films (The Client, Batman Forever, etc) have always had a glossy surface and a slick, accomplished feel. 8MM is deliberately shot in dark tones by cinematographer Robert Elswit, creating an even more oppressive and sinister atmosphere.

Cage brings an intensity to his role here, and does a quite convincing job of portraying Welles’ growing sense of anger and outrage. Joaquim Phoenix brings a welcome touch of comic relief to the film as Max, the punkish adult book store clerk, who becomes Welles’ guide into the sordid back streets inhabited by the illicit porno dealers.

8MM is not pleasant viewing, and it leaves a nasty aftertaste that takes a long while to disappear.

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