8MM pretends to be about evil the enormity of evil, why it exists, how it contaminates, deep stuff like that. In case you don't pick up on this, someone in the film says, more than once, "You dance with the devil, the devil changes you." When it's not delivering knockout moral insights, 8MM operates mostly as a plodding, doggedly tawdry thriller. Nicolas Cage, confusing lack of modulation with restraint, plays Tom Welles, a PI summoned by a rich old lady to determine the authenticity of a snuff film found among her late husband's possessions. The assignment takes him first to Ohio, where he establishes the identity of the girl knifed to death on film (white-trash runawayaspiring actress), then to the L.A. porn netherworld (his tour guide is a wiseass porn-store clerk played by Joaquin Phoenix), and eventually to Manhattan's meatpacking district, where he must face down an eccentric auteur mystifyingly described as the "Jim Jarmusch of porn" (Peter Stormare, out of control) and a masked, leather-clad actor known only as "Machine."
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker was also responsible for Seven, and he is, if nothing else, consistent. 8MM shares Seven's sadistic streak and reactionary bent. But filtered through director Joel Schumacher's myopic flash (as opposed to David Fincher's dystopic paranoia), it has absolutely none of the earlier film's grimy seductiveness. 8MM is a nasty piece of work, and it's nasty in a particularly ostentatious and sophomoric way. This is most obvious in the final scenes, where vigilante hysteria masquerades as moral hand-wringing. (Schumacher's an old pro at rough justice, of course, having also directed Falling Down and the contemptible A Time to Kill.) Welles's eventual thirst for revenge is an illogical, out-there ploy that topples the narrative over into terrain the filmmakers evidently consider risky and profound. Cage doesn't pull it off, but then, I can't think of an actor who could. As his wife, Catherine Keener struggles fruitlessly with the worst-written female role since Gretchen Mol's in Rounders. She appears periodically at the end of a phone line to pledge devotion and express concern to her absent husband. (Cradling their baby daughter, she's also used to signal a potential threat to Welles's beloved family.) You can't fault filmmakers for wanting to wax philosophical on the nature of good and evil, but with this mindlessly sordid low blow, Walker and Schumacher aren't exactly staring into the void; they are the void.
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