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8MM  

Starring: Nicolas Cage,
Joaquin Phoenix,
James Gandolfini,
Peter Stormare,
Chris Bauer,
Anthony Heald,
Catherine Keener
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker
Produced by: Judy Hofflund, Gavin Polone, and Jeff Levine

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I've seen numerous thrillers in the past where there was such an emphasis on the "atmosphere" rather than the story line - films that looked good but were otherwise pretty empty. "Eight Millimeter" is a movie that works in reverse; the atmosphere is the lifeblood of the story rather than a distraction from it. It is that intoxicating, increasingly claustrophobic air circling over the characters like a bird of prey that drives this story forward. It alters their perceptions and influences their decisions. It doesn't merely add to the story. It is the story.

The plot traces the attempts of Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) to locate the whereabouts of a young girl featured in what is referred to as a "snuff" film. On the little eight millimeter strip, she appears to be brutally killed, but his job is to find out exactly what happened. His search leads him to numerous locations, and eventually he winds up on the streets of Hollywood, surrounded by the blood-thirsty, sexually sadistic atmosphere of hard-core pornography. He befriends a porn-video store clerk (Joaquin Phoenix) and enlists his help in an effort to get closer to the filmmakers he believes may know what happened to the young victim. They are Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini) and a snuff film "artist" named Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare); two of the sleaziest characters to come around in a long time.

The film was directed by Joel ("A Time to Kill","Batman & Robin") Schumacher, who is a master visual artist and the right director for this movie. He has a good handle on the material and makes the right decisions on how to let the horror of the story unfold. For example, we never get to see the girl being murdered on the film. That's a wise decision. We learn much more watching Welles' reaction than we would seeing the slaying, plus it activates our imagination - what we envision in our mind is far scarier than what we would see. Another interesting scene is where Velvet and Poole, having realized that Welles is an investigator, set a trap for him in an effort to retrieve the film. They set it up as a hostage situation, but what makes it unique is the way they set it up. It looks like something out of a Dino Velvet film, complete with S & M paraphernalia, fancy knives, a crossbow, and a snuff film "celebrity" named Machine (Chris Bauer). The whole thing is set up and lit as a sleazy porn film with the utmost Pythagorean precision.

The writer, Andrew Kevin Walker, also wrote the movie "Seven". The two films are similar in that they are both about characters who stare into the deepest, darkest abyss of human nature, and question their beliefs and values as a result. This new "world" that Welles has come to inhabit affects him so deeply that at one point, he calls the mother of the victim, asking her permission to hurt the men responsible for what happened to her daughter. He listens to her sob uncontrollably, feeding off the shattered emotions only a mother could feel, to gain the strength for ultimate revenge. It's a morally questionable act; one which shows just how far down into the abyss he has fallen.

Good performances add to the film's success. The villains are especially effective, most notably Peter ("Fargo","Armageddon") Stormare as the porn artist Dino Velvet. He's not a vicious thug, but a rather laid-back eccentric who views death as a form of expressionist art. When he gets shot (as most all villains do), he mutters "No. No. This is not a good ending. This is not how I should go out," as though he had already envisioned a more "cinematic" death for himself. Chris Bauer, as Machine, has very few lines except near the end, where he delivers a speech about why he enjoys killing that sends chills straight down the spine. And Joaquin ("To Die For","Inventing the Abbots") Phoenix, as Max, the video store clerk, certainly looks the part but comes across as more intelligent and perceptive than one might expect. When he says to Welles, "When you dance with the Devil, you don't change the Devil. The Devil changes you," we get the feeling he knows what he's talking about.

When films like this are done well, they carry an aura on authenticity with them. That's what makes it scary. Is there true evil in the world, as this film seems to suggest? I don't know. Watching "Eight Millimeter" is as close as I want to get to finding out.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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