Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is what used to be colorfully called a private dick; he snoops for a living. But when we first meet him in Eight Millimeter, he’s a colorless, self-employed taxpayer leading a drab existence in Harrisburg, Pa., drabber than that — as depicted — one cannot get without re- locating to Bulgaria. Welles has a wife (Catherine Keener from Your Friends & Neighbors) who doesn’t smile much, possibly because her husband is as impenetrable as Gore-Tex. And he’s got an infant daughter, Cindy, whom he affectionately calls Cinderella, hugs for 20 seconds, then returns to her mother’s arms. When the man really wants to bust loose, he secretly smokes a forbidden cigarette, then lies to his wife about the source of the reek that wreathes him.
Welles’ life becomes considerably more exciting when he’s hired by a wealthy old widow (Myra Carter). She’s upset because, among the contents of her late husband’s private safe, she has found a reel of 8 mm film featuring a young woman who, one could swear, is being slashed to death. It’s a snuff film. And what the horrified widow wants the private eye to find out is, Who is the girl? And was the mutilation staged — or was she really murdered?
Eight Millimeter, a thriller as shredded to a pulp as the poor victim on Welles’ ”To Find” list, is the post-Batman & Robinn project of Joel Schumacher, and it retains the director’s trademark lascivious ogling, camouflaged as lavish attention to art direction; the script is by Seven‘s Andrew Kevin Walker, and retains that stylistically influential 1995 thriller’s undiscriminating fascination with depravity. (The intrusive music by Mychael Danna suggests that every time depravity is uncovered, sitars twang and Sufis wail.) Following the trail of the unknown girl, Welles makes his way to L.A., where he decends into the skeevy depths of the town’s fetish-movie industry, and the unlikely Dante meets an even more unlikely Virgil to guide him through the dark woods of taboo.
Wannabe rock star Max (Joaquin Phoenix), an adult- bookstore clerk, is the kind of indulgently constructed movie character — a young actor’s dream — who’s so quirk bedecked, he furtively reads In Cold Blood wrapped in a dirty book so as not to attract shocked stares on the job. Max is hip and articulate; he’s also amazingly well connected. And he takes his new friend on a tour of his turf, where the fathomless voraciousness of human appetites threatens to alienate Welles from his own ”decent” self. (As a reminder of how even a runaway-turned-porn victim is somebody’s daughter — a message previously posted by Paul Schrader in Hardcore — the absent father regularly fills the silences that hang heavy in the phone calls to his neglected wife with ”How’s Cindy?”)
Eight Millimeter hammers home these debatable, if old-news notions — that savage tastes live in average people, ready to be awakened with the right stimulus, and that those who watch porn (and by extension, those who are excited by this provocative movie about porn) are in some way complicit in the inevitable proliferation of porn — with all the subtlety of Dirk Diggler’s appendage. And then, as Welles moves on to rough-and-seedy New York City in pursuit of a skanky producer (James Gandolfini, powerful star of HBO’s The Sopranos) and insinuates himself into the goth lair of a satanic director of S&M movies (Fargo‘s Peter Stormare, as understated as Marilyn Manson), the movie devolves further; it becomes a pointless, violent, torture-or-be-tortured flick, in which the detective supposedly wrestles with his own most dehumanized instincts. You can tell Cage is wrestling because his face collapses inward with private pain even more than usual. Now’s the time for him to drawl, Con Air style, ”Put. The. Bunny. Down.”
In one suspenseful scene, Welles tracks a particularly brutal sexual sadist to the guy’s home. Of course the beast lives with his mama, in the mildest of Queens neighborhoods, right next to a cemetery. Of course the unseen mother can be heard imploring ”Come to church, son,” before trundling off to the Faithful Christian Fellowship. Of course it’s nighttime and the skies weep raindrops, and the filmmaker can’t resist including a shot of a wet Virgin Mary lawn ornament. Pornography next to godliness — it’s all the same to Schumacher, a heavenly opportunity to art-direct an unconvincing notion of hell. C-