8mm (1999)


8mm, a brutal detective story about pursuing the truth about a snuff film, is a superb movie, a modern member of a dark story tradition, a classic descent into the Inferno or, if you will, an expedition into Darwinian savagery that I am sure will appall most moviegoers. It was a reasonable commercial success at release; but it has been received with hostility by most of its reviewers, innocents abroad. (Roger Ebert may be the one notable exception–he incisively praises it as “a real movie” about confronting evil.) Its author, scriptwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), walked out of the 8mm production during shooting enraged that director Joel Schumacher had slightly lightened the story in several places; furthermore Walker has said he will not watch the finished movie. (Walker’s script for Seven, followed faithfully by its production principals, is an infernal Dantean drama of the awful punitive wages of each of the seven deadly sins–wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony–as re-staged in late twentieth century New York City and with two detectives [not much recalling Dante and Virgil except numerically] chasing Walker’s psychopathic stand-in for Satan who stages the horrific metaphorical killings.)

Walker may be an odd and old-fashioned dramatist of Evil who has gotten lost in this later world of movies, but he is one with an impressive knowledge of classic literature and the sense to let it inform his latter day dramas. He knows, of course, that there is real seminal power in the old stories, inspirational force even: Apropos, I spent most of a day some years ago in Los Angeles with the film editor of Seven, Richard Francis-Bruce, and told him how much I admired the consistently (and hence story-unifying) rainy, dismal world of Seven–and such wonders as the unforgettable scene in which unexpectedly the killer (“John Doe”/Kevin Spacey), presented as barely a silhouette, appears for the first time, emerging almost apparition-like at the far end of a long, dingy corridor in a decrepit Manhattan hotel and at once opens fire on the two detectives, played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, in the foreground outside Doe’s room just as they have tracked down where he lives; Francis-Bruce seemed even more proud of the ensuing scene when the detectives chase Doe among garbage bins on a rainy back street, a masterfully edited sequence. I had the sense that the power and implicit, fundamental reach of the classic storyline of Seven, however horrific, deeply engaged Francis-Bruce, that is, loosed his creativity. (Which reminds me: If you want to experience an unwittingly comedic version of Seven and 8mm, check your paper for the next showing of The Da Vinci Code. I tremble to imagine what might have happened to Dan Brown in a Dominican medieval court investigating aesthetic heresy!)

Albeit the self-exiled Walker is incensed by his compromised script, I think 8mm retains quite enough integrity to exert a very old and most engaging storytelling power similar to that of Seven on its production and acting principals. Nicholas Cage is excellent as Detective Tom Welles, but his leading role fights for its life up against the likes of James Gandolfini as Eddie Poole, a heartless and cruel producer of porno movies in the dregs of LA; Joaquin Phoenix as a tattooed and pierced and philosophical LA porno shop employee, Max California (the Virgil of this infernal descent); Peter Stormare as the frighteningly depraved Manhattan porno filmmaker, Dino Velvet (Stormare is the largely silent, hulking killer, Gaear Grimsrud, in Fargo); Amy Morton as Janet Mathews, the mother of a missing girl possibly the victim in the snuff film; Catherine Keener as Amy Welles, wife of Tom; and Chris Bauer as the murderous porno-actor, Machine. I don’t think Gandolfini has ever been better; Morton, primarily a stage actress, is terribly moving, utterly convincing, in her few scenes in a mini tour de force; Stormare is darkly and fearfully spellbinding as the diabolical maker of the most disturbed porno films, “one of a kind” pieces of depraved savagery on commission; and Chris Bauer is an awful revelation as the monstrous knifing murderer. Poole, Velvet and Machine might be distant cousins of Conrad’s evil trio in Victory, Pedro, Martin Ricardo and Mr. Jones.

Walker knows all about noir detective stories as well as earlier classic literature. Tom Welles, a successful detective for wealthy clients and happily married with a toddler son, is summoned by the family lawyer to the Pennsylvania mansion of a recently deceased corporate titan and enormously wealthy man, a Towering Respectable, whose widow, Mrs. Christian, has discovered a snuff film in his safe in the mansion. She wants Welles to find out whether the girl depicted as murdered in the film by a knifer in a leather mask was actually killed. Welles has nothing to go on but the film itself. And in a beautifully paced sleuthing drama, Welles eventually finds the identity of the girl, a runaway from a struggling life with a single mom in a Poverty Level neighborhood, and tracks her to Hollywood to which she journeyed on crowded Cinderella highway. This is an odyssey in which Welles is sinking down, descending, lowering into an awful underworld, one far away from his upper middle class life amidst affluent clients seeking to expose adulterers and embezzlers. Welles ends up somewhere in the neighborhood of Hell, the Styx, the Netherworld. He prevails, barely. He is scathed. He is even somewhat corrupted.

8mm is essentially an honest movie. You don’t think of it as Gothic.

And especially, the movie is testimony to a stint of sublime directing by Joel Schumacher. He is an acutely conscious and inspired storyteller at every point. His theme is the pursuit of the worst truth about human nature, its deep-down bestial origins and violent instincts over the centuries of its ascent (descent?) in the all-too-still-real netherworld of natural selection. And Schumacher does not avert his eyes or ours from the disheartening fascination that desperately hidden truth holds for everyone: the both willy-nilly and hated wanting to see and admit it. Yes, the uncanny details of Schumacher’s art unify his horrific masterpiece about our not unspeakable but always sooner or later speakable Origins. And so: The hideous snuff film Detective Welles investigates may have been commissioned by a Foremost Respectable, a Captain of Industry, an Immensely Rich One of Rectitude; we see a heroic portrait of him in his wood-paneled study as a Founding Elder, a study in which that secret grisly film–a sudden, flashing Darwinian clue?–has lain hidden for years in a wall safe; and his widow cannot believe her Paragon of Society may have paid to have a girl slashed to death on film; in short, Who was her Revered Citizen? And Max California, the tattooed LA porno shop employee and natural intellectual who becomes Welles’s Virgil in the journey through the Inferno (perhaps today better thought of as Darwin’s Voyage to Primordial Islands) in search of the murderers is discovered covertly reading In Cold Blood at the cash register as he sells the shelved sleaze, Capote’s own descent out of his well-publicized Irresistible Curiosity, a descent from glitzy Tiffany’s in Manhattan and its own film angel, the sweet Holly/Audrey, to the savage truth of hapless, innocently wounded but instinctively homicidal convict Perry Smith, the primordial swamp water in his Homo sapiens veins (veins exactly like ours) mingling with and cooling his blood to coldness. And in 8mm, when the murderous porn actor and killer-slasher Machine is finally unmasked to reveal a perfectly ordinary-looking citizen, he asks the stunned Welles, “What did you expect? A Monster?” And then there are the many deliberate scenes of Descent and of Infernal Levels: the darkened plush rooms in the mansion of the dead Prominent; Welles driving his car down a long ramp–the car seems to be lowering–into the dimness of a parking garage perhaps somewhere near the Styx; the hellish shadowy, noisy and filthy scenes in the decrepit LA warehouses where the worst porn is sold; the dungeon-like dim “studio” of the snuff filmmaker in a rotting building on the New York waterfront. And then there is the haunting score by Canadian Mychael Danna, a score with an especially powerful passage which plays in scenes in which Welles pursues clues about the missing girl: a female singer sings wordless lines which magically seem to be a summons to Welles. (See link below.)

You’d have to think that in the 1940s the censors would have attacked 8mm, but I doubt it would really have been as shocking for many in those hard and war torn times as it is today. Welles reminds of a World War Two soldier who has seen the most savage combat. He has entered the jungle and fought the foes hand-to-hand, and he hopes that when the savagery has ended he can do what one character in 8mm advises him to do: “Try to forget us.” Of course, you’re certain it’s a false hope.

8mm is among other things a lacerating rejoinder to insular and complacent attitudes.

Even though I think it has a sublime integrity and makes an old point in our day, do I recommend seeing it?

Strictly up to you.

I’m not sure I’d invite company over to watch it.