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Natural Porn Killers

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 1999

  Movie Critic

8MM Nicolas Cage, left, seeks out scuzz and filth and Peter Stormare in "8MM." (Columbia TriStar)

Joel Schumacher
Nicolas Cage;
Joaquin Phoenix;
Peter Stormare;
James Gandolfini;
Catherine Keener
Running Time:
2 hours, 5 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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In the uncertain zone between dumb and truly twisted lies "8MM," a movie that will baffle and disgust you in one disconcerting experience.

Director Joel Schumacher's thriller about snuff pornography feels like a misplaced excuse to make a dark trip to a scuzzy underworld and express moral outrage at the potbellied pigs who create and support such an industry. And if, in passing, he has to show you flashes of women being beaten, degraded and possibly killed, that's par for the course.

That Nicolas Cage agreed to star in this project is one of the movie's more unintended mysteries. Perhaps he thought screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker's "8" would be as good as his "Seven." Cage's presence is workmanlike and watchable enough to make you sit through most of the movie. But as the movie's gratuitous agenda begins to smell too obvious, and it becomes clear this thing's a disaster, Cage's credibility goes to seed. You're almost tempted to wait outside his front door with a camera crew, harsh lights and the inevitable question: "Why, Nicolas? Why?"

As surveillance expert Tom Welles, he's hired by the elderly widow of a deceased millionaire to make sense of a disturbing Super-8mm movie found among the dead man's personal effects. The "snuff movie" shows a young lady apparently being raped and killed by a large man wearing a leather face mask, whose name we learn later is Machine.

Mrs. Christian, the old lady, wants Tom to find out who made this movie and whether the girl is truly dead.

"Please find her alive," says Mrs. Christian.

Tom kisses his wife, Amy (Catherine Keener), and baby daughter goodbye and goes in search of scuzz and filth. He finds it in Hollywood's underworld of pornography.

He meets – and here's the best part of the movie – an interesting character called Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), a rock star aspirant who earns money clerking in a porno store. As Tom closes in on his target, which includes finding a snuffmeister dubiously known as "The Jim Jarmusch of S&M," Max brings much-needed comic relief to this dark little thriller.

When Tom and Max notice a porno actress appearing in one snuff film after apparently dying in a previous one, Max retorts: "Oh that's great, 'Snuff 2: The Resurrection'!"

But Walker's script also insists on making Max prattle on about the contagious influence of pornography. "Before you know it," he warns Tom, "you're dancing with the devil."

And then, who knows, Tom? You'll probably start watching professional wrestling!

In the past, director Schumacher's darkest moments have been couched in campy quotation marks, as evidenced in two Batman movies and the music-video-flavored "Flatliners." But this time, he goes for broke with ultra violence, gross sexual acts and an eastern-flavored music score presumably intended to underscore this disorienting atmosphere.

Without giving things away, let's just say that things get increasingly ugly and diabolical. And Tom, getting predictably soiled by the world he's infiltrating, becomes increasingly vigilante in spirit as he faces off with the worst the underground porno empire has to offer.

One feels pity for the poor souls who appear in these porn flicks, of course. But the real female victim in "8MM" is actress Keener in the thankless role of Tom's wife. There's one unintentionally hilarious moment when Tom – covered in blood, facing the end and fearful his family might be in danger – calls his wife and tells her to get the hell out of the house with the kid and hide out until he sends for her. At this point, she dithers with a whine. "What are you saying, Tom? You're really starting to scare me." Or words to that effect.

At this point, the movie breaks down completely. But the story still has a long way to go.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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