8mm (Joel Schumacher, 1999)
[originally posted 17Jan2000, revised 29Jul2013]
What can you do with 8mm? The one thing you can’t do is argue with the conclusions to be drawn from it. There has been much debate over the years as to where it was that Joel Schumacher’s career went off the cliff. As far as I’m concerned, it was the beginning of the nineties; Flatliners was Schumacher’s last watchable, much less enjoyable, movie, for my money. There are those who will hold out for A Time to Kill or Schumacher’s ridiculous Batman-franchise movies as being still-okay Joel. But if you ever meet someone who contends that he was still good by 1999 and the release of 8mm, you can safely ignore that person’s taste in movies forevermore.
Plot: Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is a PI hired by a wealthy recent widow, Mrs. Christian (Storm of the Century‘s Myra Wells in her last screen appearance to date). Mrs. Christian found a rather disturbing reel of film amongst her late husband’s effects, and wants to know if it’s a real snuff film. Soon enough, Welles is as obsessed with the question as Christian is, and with the help of jack-of-all-sleazy-trades Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), Welles starts digging into the seemingly vast, powerful snuff film underground…that may not actually exist.
This was the weekend of Potentially Great Movies, and Joel Schumacher’s dip into the world of the infamous “snuff” film tops the list. It could have been an astounding movie, had it tried a little harder to break some barriers down (and had Nicholas Cage’s role been better cast– Cage just doesn’t play a guy slowly having a nervous breakdown well) and been a little more subtle in its approach. As it was, it was a little too gratuitous, a little too exaggerated, and a little too detached. Which is too bad, because in the places where it shines, it really does shine. Joaquin Phoenix, in particular, is very likable in this film, every bit the foil to Cage’s miscasting. And the above just touches on the incredible pool of talent brought together for this movie; Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare (always underrated, usually wonderful, in that Tcheky Karyo kind of way), Norman Reedus, Don Creech, I could keep going all day like this.
Now, in hindsight (I’m writing this paragraph in 2013), here’s why everything kind of comes together vis-a-vis 8mm and Schumacher’s career going off the cliff, even if you did like those awful Batman movies: this is the first time where Schumacher took a script that was highly regarded in Hollywood circles, proposed a number of changes to it, met with resistance from the scriptwriter, and ended up with said scriptwriter walking off the job and leaving Schumacher to bungle it. (As of this writing, the most recent case of such shenanigans we know of is the even worse Blood Creek, based on a script disowned by David Kajganich, which Schumacher released in 2009.) In the case of 8mm, the script was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, and all I should need to say about the quality of Walker’s scripts is Se7en. (According to IMDB’s trivia section for the movie, longtime Walker collaborator David Fincher was the first choice to direct; Fincher, presumably wrapped up in Fight Club, took a pass.) And in the places where this movie comes within spitting distance of greatness, I think it’s safe to assume, it’s Walker’s script coming through despite Schumacher’s changes; this becomes all the more obvious through the lens of Blood Creek.
I’d love to see a remake of this film that goes back to Walker’s original script and makes a few key casting changes (for the love of Roberta Findlay, use an unknown actor for Tom Welles). There’s just enough here for me to prognosticate that that movie would be a thriller for the ages. This one is not. **