Rating -

Thriller (US); 1999; Rated R; 123 Minutes

Nicholas Cage:
Tom Welles
Joaquin Phoenix: Max California
James Gandolfini: Eddie Poole
Peter Stormare: Dino Velvet
Anthony Heald: Longdale

Produced by Joseph M. Caracciolo, Judy Hofflund, Jeff Levine, Gavin Palone and Joel Schumacher; Directed by Joel Schumacher; Screenwritten by Andrew Kevin Walker

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"There's three rules in life: One, there's always a victim; two, don't be it; and three... I forgot what three is."

-Dialogue from "8MM"

Sitting through the disturbing images displayed in "8MM," I wondered how it was possible for the MPAA to slap the film with a measly "R" rating, instead of what it clearly deserved, the notorious "NC-17." The film, often unpleasant to watch, centers on events that are putrid, disgusting, immoral, nasty, ruthless, and worst of all, barbaric. Yet somehow, all of these qualities do not distract us from feeling horrified in a creditable way. The director wants us to be aghast by the perceptions without being completely grossed out, and he accomplishes the task by peering into the disgusting images without always going too far. One might admit that the harsh situations get a little out of hand sometimes, but what did you expect? After all, this is underground porn: did you expect something tasteful?

Tom Welles, played by Nicholas Cage, is a private investigator who is hired by an old widow to investigate a snuff film she found in her husband's safe. He is asked to find out if the girl in the film is still alive, or if the entire porn is merely a fake. When he views it, he sees a young woman who is maliciously murdered by a man in a leather mask, and is so horrified at what he sees he is stunned. With what is shown of that snuff film on screen, we are just as horrified.

His ongoing pursuit for answers takes him away from his wife and child, who are seen mostly on screen via telephone conversations with Tom. Using the evidence he finds from the girl's mother, he winds up in LA to explore for himself the deep dark pleasures of underground porn.

Mr. Welles finds his ticket into the industry from a porn retailer named Max (Joaquin Phoenix), whose other links with other famous pornographic businessmen eventually get Tom into what he so desperately wants. Arriving there, the movie demonstrates even more bitterly what that one snuff film in particular could not: the sexual games, the taunting, the pain, the ruthless torture, and so on. Most of these events are shown in the film with great detail, including one absolutely repugnant scene in which a man is tortured with plastic male anatomy. And if you think that's bad, wait until they start using sharper objects.

The performances sustained in the film help carry out our tolerance for the subject matter. Peter Stormare, who plays the porn director, is ruthless in nearly every respect, and puts his role as the quiet but nasty killer in "Fargo" to shame. Joaquin Phoenix is equally effective, using dialogue that must have been written strictly for him, and Nicholas Cage handles what he sees in ways that we might handle it if we were in the same situations. The writer portrays him as a loving, respectful human being, brought up by decent morals, who is suddenly thrown into a world that he knows nothing about, and is completely disgusted by it.

The script was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, who also wrote the masterpiece "Seven," about a brutal series of murders involving the seven deadly sins. Like that movie, there's a constant urge to reject the film for its cruel and sickening aspects. But like "Seven," the treatment of the situations is more nerve-wrecking than sickening, therefore making the rejection a temptation I can resist. Undoubtedly, the film will turn off audience members, but it could be worse. There were occasions when people got up and left the film about halfway through, probably because they could no longer stand the grotesque images. To truly rid yourself of all the sickening torture, however, the ending needs to be seen, that way the situations are resolved, as well as your feelings. To leave the theater halfway through would be like putting pause on a childbirth, just because you cannot stand the pain.

1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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