Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Nicholas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, Catherine Keener
Director: Joel Schumacher
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 123 Minutes
Release Date: July 20, 1999
Eight Millimeter pulls back the curtains to the seedy underworld of illegal pornography, and seems to catch it off guard. There is nothing about it enticing or titillating. It's a world of lives gone wrong, of souls who are as much lost to their addiction as the drug addict or alcoholic. It may be the closest thing to hell we'll ever see in our lives.
Nicholas Cage plays private detective Tom Welles, a decent but ambitious professional with a reputation for being both thorough and discreet. Most of his job is pretty mundane-not the glamorous detective lifestyle we're used to seeing in the movies. He spends a lot of time in front of a computer, or going through boxes of files by hand, showing a picture around, asking questions, all the time wishing he was back home with his family.
But his quiet existence is challenged when an oil tycoon's widow hires him for an unusual purpose. She discovered a short, 8 mm film in her husband's safe. It appears to show a young girl being raped and brutally murdered. Welles contends that so-called 'snuff' films are merely an urban legend, but it's clear he is transformed by the images on screen in front of him. (In a tasteful touch, we never get a good look at the film, but we experience its horrors through Welles' reactions). Now he must try to find the girl, and hopefully prove that the film is indeed a staged hoax.
And herein lies the agony of critiquing movies from time to time...I am choosing not to write the next several paragraphs that I want desperately to write, because to do so would spoil the plot and the impact of the movie. I could just issue a spoiler warning, but I just can't bring myself to do it under any circumstance. This is one I may have to go back and review again after a few months and do it proper.
What I will say is that this movie breaks a lot of thriller conventions. The film is not driven by suspense, save for the last stretch, but rather, slowly brings you into a strange and frightening world that's hard to look away from. Cage is the perfect choice for the protagonist as such, because at every moment of the movie, he is exactly where we, the audience are, both emotionally and mentally. Cage is well reputed for bringing to his characters a kind of everyman quality that allows those who watch to experience the events of a movie more fully through his eyes, and he is at the top of his form in this film.
Joaquin Phoenix, as porn store clerk Max California, is a fascinating character as well. He's clearly someone who could have been so much more and done good things with his life if only...well, if only he hadn't started down a path somewhere in his past that he can't get off now. He warns Welles of the dangers of the pornographic world, that there are things that once you've seen them, you'll never be able to un-see them. And Welles is aware that his somber, sordid journey could very well end by discovering that an innocent girl was brutally butchered at the hands of some inhuman monsters for the sake of creating something that could only stimulate the sickest and most rotten of minds. He knows this, but knowing it and being prepared to deal with that possibility are two very different states for him.
Though an anamorphic transfer, the quality of this disc is sadly unimpressive. A poor decision was made by Columbia Tri Star to release this as a dual sided disc, with widescreen on one side and pan and scan on the other. I say poor, because no DVD collector I know would ever watch a pan and scan version of a 2.35:1 image. This in turn means no dual layer capability. Thus, a two hour-plus movie, plus a trailer, plus a featurette, all had to be compressed to fit on a single side. And it looks it. The image is mostly hazy and soft...not a lot of grain, but lacking in sharpness, color contrast, and clarity in a few darker scenes. It's far from unwatchable, but dual layering would have probably made this a top notch transfer instead of a mediocre one.
Far less complaints about the 5.1 soundtrack, though, which is lively, clear, and dynamic, making good use of front and rear stages for music, effects, and general ambience, including occasional kicks from the .1 channel.
There is the aforementioned trailer and production featurette, plus a nice commentary from director Joel Schumacher, who had to take a similar journey into a world of unpleasant images in making this film as his lead character does in it.
Eight Millimeter is not the exercise in bad taste some made it out to be...the subject matter is distasteful by it's very nature, to be sure, but the film deals more with the impact it has on real lives, rather than the subject matter itself. It is a bold, dark, unflinching look at a world many of us may never see for ourselves, and hopefully never will. It is a world that you just might be able to make it back from, but you'll never be quite the same for it.