Joel Schumacher has always been a shallow, valueless director with a facility for making movies of the moment, full of striking imagery, that pull hordes of viewers for a few weeks and then vanish forever. From "St. Elmo's Fire" to "Flatliners" to "Falling Down," Schumacher has specialized in a particular type of portentous fakery, often pretending that his films have something to say about Life or Society. But there isn't a single one of them that anybody anywhere has ever willingly sat through twice. At least Schumacher's last movie, "Batman & Robin" -- although it is by universal acclamation the most incoherent film ever made (including "Un Chien Andalou") -- didn't claim to be a thought-provoking parable for our times.
Even by Schumacher's standards, "8mm" is loathsome crap. As I suffered through the latter stages of this sadistic, endlessly bogus, would-be journey through the dark night of the soul, I began to suspect that "8mm," unlike anything else Schumacher has ever made, may have a future. Coming generations of late-night video hounds may recognize it, along with Oliver Stone's "The Doors," as one of the most unintentionally hilarious attempts at serious filmmaking in cinema history. But even this realization was not enough to get me out of the theater with my spirits intact.
Late in "8mm," a generic sleazoid porn-maker named Eddie (James Gandolfini), who's straight out of an episode of "Baretta," tells tormented private eye Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) that it didn't turn him on to make a snuff film for a rich customer. "It was something I did for money," he says. For me, this line echoed back through the entire film like an involuntary confession. At least when Oliver Stone makes a stupid movie, we know he believes in it (well, except for "U-Turn," maybe). I'm afraid "8mm" is something Schumacher did for money.
Did I mention that sleazy Eddie is being beaten and tortured by Tom when he makes his confession? It's hard to keep track -- the scenes of Gothic grotesquerie come thick and fast. Tom is a low-rent Dante, whose quest for a snuff victim's identity in the hellish porn biz, we're supposed to believe, endangers his sanity and, yes, his very soul. Along with Gandolfini as the sweaty, sideburned Eddie, the demons Tom meets include Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, a Mephistophelean Manhattan filmmaker described as "the Jim Jarmusch of porn," whose art-damaged S/M movies always star a leather-masked geek named Machine. Maybe the nadir of dumb-ass symbolism comes when Tom visits an underground hardcore-porn club in L.A. and witnesses a room full of moaning perverts -- who look like an assortment of lepers and hunchbacks from a Fellini dream sequence -- feverishly jerking off to an ancient black-and-white movie of a guy getting an enema. As if anybody would bother! Any 14-year-old could find nastier stuff within a few mouse clicks of this screen.
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker is apparently trying to out-nasty his own "Seven," a gloomy, even horrifying thriller I greatly admired (though lots of people hated it), but the results are more like self-parody. That movie was built around the compelling on-screen tension between Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, while Schumacher's slipshod work with actors makes "Seven" director David Fincher look like Ingmar Bergman. From a technical standpoint, "8mm" is expertly crafted, and that's part of the reason it's such a debilitating experience. The hypnotic throb and pulse of Robert Elswit's cinematography and Mychael Danna's soundtrack keep you locked in Schumacher's nightmare world, no matter how risible it sometimes seems. But there's no payoff on your 124 minutes of gratuitous torture. If I wanted to feel this flat-out depressed about human life, I'd read about the massacres in equatorial Africa or look into Bob Barr's face.
Cage is an actor capable of great subtlety and sensitivity, but he's increasingly prone to coasting through movies on automatic pilot, then planting his feet and shouting at the camera when the script calls for emotion. I guess this fits the sudden lurches of the plot, in which Tom, a small-time Pennsylvania dick (how does he afford those trendy Euro suits?), gets suckered into researching the apparent snuff flick found in a dead tycoon's private safe. Cage goes from his deadpan, edgy, haunted mode -- we know Tom is lying to his wife about smoking cigarettes, so he's clearly a guy with a dark side -- to manufactured, sanctimonious outrage like a man turning a light switch off and on. At one point he actually yells, "Why did he want to film a little girl being butchered?" as though that sort of question might have an answer.
We never see the entire snuff film, though the fragments we do see are certainly creepy enough. Instead, the camera focuses on Cage's exaggerated horror while watching it, as though the director were trying to assure us how deeply he disapproves of the depraved realm he is now about to show us in suffocating, overheated detail. As the electronic soundtrack issues its pseudo-exotic, arabesque wails, Tom wanders through a succession of smoke-filled strip bars and outdoor porn bazaars mumbling, "Got anything harder?" This movie offers an even more sensationalized (and in fact glamorous) portrait of the sex industry than Paul Schrader's infamous "Hardcore"; the real porn business these days is mostly bored pros cranking out crappy videos for Internet consumption. Tom's voyage into evil finally corrupts him, of course, driving him into an orgy of blood vengeance for a murdered girl he never met. Maybe he can't take it when Dino Velvet actually uses the expression "Satan ex machina."
That faint glimmer you see through the lurid murk of "8mm" is Joaquin Phoenix, quite enjoyable as a slacker wannabe-musician gone to seed behind the desk of a porn bookstore. (Even though he has to tell Tom, ominously, "There are things you're going to see that you can't unsee.") Also good is Amy Morton as the snuff victim's bedraggled, working-class mom, who makes a feeble effort to seduce Tom in one of "8mm's" only genuine, human scenes. But Catherine Keener, one of American film's hidden gems, has got to tell her agent to reject these whiny-wife roles. Mostly in this movie she sits around with a baby on her knee while Tom doesn't call; every so often he rushes home covered in blood or mewling with angst so she can weep at him: "Look at yourself! You son of a bitch!"
Everybody involved with this cruel and empty film -- which lurches to a close with yet another tedious "Silence of the Lambs" rip-off -- needs to take one of those long walks where you think about that high school teacher who admired you and wondered what you'd make of your life. "8mm" is almost as degrading as any unmarked video you can buy in the back alleys of Manila, and, in its pseudo-significance and arty pretension, it's a lot less honest. I'm heartily sorry I had to poison an entire evening with it. My advice is get drunk, cook dinner, watch infomercials or do your taxes -- anything to keep those two hours for yourself.