Troy Patterson
July 20, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The most shocking thing about Joel Schumacher’s Eight Millimeter isn’t its perverse subject matter or casually virulent misogyny, but the fact that scanning this slick yet grimy trash gives you an insight or two about the nature of movie violence. Manure, it seems, can fertilize an idea or two.

At heart, the movie is a standard police procedural starring Nicolas Cage as Tom Welles, a suburban family man who’s also a surveillance expert. One gray day, a rich widow summons him to her mansion. She has found, in her husband’s safe, a reel of film that appears to show a girl being murdered — a snuff film — and wants Tom to (dis)prove its authenticity. In his quest for the truth, Tom views and re-views this terminal smut while following leads through a cartoonishly seedy underworld (populated by the likes of ”To Die For”’s Joaquin Phoenix and ”The Sopranos”’ James Gandolfini). The movie is as stagnant in tone (what else to expect from Schumacher, the director of ”Batman & Robin”) as it is sensationalist in detail (what else to expect from Andrew Kevin Walker, the writer of ”Seven”), emerging as just another exploitation film about exploitation.

”Eight Millimeter” makes only superficial attempts to question the appeal of the sex-death fetish. Like Martin Scorsese’s ”Mean Streets,” the movie’s title sequence opens onto the glaring eye of a projector. Both shots reference Ingmar Bergman’s identity-probing ”Persona,” but Schumacher’s homage is just art-house window dressing. The question remains: What does the myth of snuff say about our attraction to movie violence and its covert connections to movie sex?

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