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8MM Eight Millimeter (1999)
Director: Joel Schumacher

review by Steven Hampton

A rich widow discovers a reel of Super-8 millimetre film in her late husband's safe at home. The footage appears to be an authentic 'snuff movie'. Wary of this traceable evidence of a serious crime, she hires a reputable private investigator, Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage), and instructs him to learn the identity of the - apparently murdered - young girl in the film, and find out if she's actually alive. Welles sets about this potentially grisly task with commensurate professionalism but he soon finds himself under psychological pressure, in emotional turmoil, and on the slippery slope to moral turpitude. As an upstanding family man, Welles unwittingly confronts the abyss, and the abyss reaches into his very soul to twist his outlook and destroy his normal life.
   Apart from appalling fiascos like The Incredible Shrinking Woman, dreary slugs such as Dying Young, brat pack clunker St Elmo's Fire and his blundering Batman adventures, director Joel Schumacher can do the odd intelligent film, every now and again - see The Client and Falling Down. This somewhat unfocused, though genuinely brave, exploration of the 20th century's most enduring urban legend (is there really such a thing a snuff movie?) challenges viewers to address their own distasteful interest in the visual entertainment industry's darkest side (why are we watching this horrible stuff at all?) even as it draws us, inexorably, into this relentlessly seedy yet undeniably mesmerizing train wreck of a mystery drama. Although 8MM tries hard to bring us a vision of 'Leatherface in New York', it fails to deliver any of the warped cross-genre thrills demanded by the needlessly elaborate plot, settling for a brooding atmosphere peopled with unintentionally comic bad-guys.
   This lacks the strengths of the movie genre it purports to imitate most because Welles is allowed, in the end, to manfully save the day. Roger Ebert has said: "The message of noir is that there are no heroes." 8MM fervently denies this assertion and gives the story a happy ending it honestly doesn't deserve. Its impact would have been far greater if, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Welles had perished or otherwise lost his humanity entirely during this case. He doesn't, and so we don't really care what happens to him. Unlike De Niro's archetypal psycho-vigilante, Bickle, Welles is not a tragic figure, he's just another survivor of the good people's fight against evil. Simply put, he doesn't fall far enough.
previously published online, VideoVista #21
8MM
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