Film: Just not up to snuff

The Big Picture

After the unpardonable mess of his previous effort, Batman & Robin, any film Joel Schumacher made would have to be considered a step forward. 8mm is indeed an improvement, if not exactly what you'd call improving. Sex and violence have been crunched into a gruesome two-for-the-price- of-one package, raising familiar questions about this director's integrity: is he a ruthless opportunist or genuinely preoccupied with the dark side? 8mm may leave you feeling he's actually a bit of both.

It begins intriguingly. Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is a private detective hired by a rich widow to investigate a reel of film found in her late husband's safe. The footage apparently shows the torture and murder of a young woman, and it's Tom's job to find out her identity and whether she was, in fact, the victim of a snuff movie. Well, it's some kind of living, so Tom packs his bags, furrows his brow, and sets off on this merry quest. Neat in jacket and tie, Nicolas Cage is back to hangdog mode after the flamboyant bulldog of Snake Eyes: Tom takes everything very seriously, even smoking, which he seems to have learnt from a handbook called Cigarettes and the Art of Cool: A Private Eye's Guide.

For the film to work it's important that we see Tom as an innocent; this is a man whose stock in trade is divorce, not the outer limits of depravity. To this end one expects the tonal range of the film to shift between light and dark as our knight in shining raincoat feels the grime beginning to cling. Unfortunately, Schumacher has omitted one half of the contrast and chosen to steep everything in gloom from the word go. Even tender domestic scenes between Tom and his wife (Catherine Keener) are cast in funereal shadow; there hasn't been a movie of such tenebrous foreboding since Seven which, not coincidentally, was written by the same man, Andrew Kevin Walker. Seven was quite deliberately a vision of hell on earth, whereas 8mm needs the balance of light and shade if the moral journey of its protagonist is to have any potency. By the end the movie looks as though it's been made during a power cut.

Having trawled the missing persons files and come up with a possible name for the lost girl, Tom makes West Hollywood his first port of call. Here he falls in with a tattooed porn-store clerk named Max (Joaquin Phoenix), who will play Virgil to his Dante as he descends into the Hades of LA's hard-core scene. Max maintains an amused detachment from this empire of sleaze, but on the threshold he warns Tom: "There are things you're gonna see that you can't unsee... Before you know it, you're in it." So follows a freak-show cavalcade of buyers and sellers, of painted girls, sweaty backroom producers and strongmen in leather masks. Hooray for Hollywood! To be honest, I expected something a little more shocking than what Schumacher serves up here. Even when Tom quietly wipes his hand on his shirt after putting down another slice of porno smut, one never gets the sense of something truly, unregenerately evil.

I kept hoping the film would take a risk and show Tom succumbing to the siren lure of porn, in the way Al Pacino was seduced by the gay subculture of Cruising. But Mychael Danna's eerie Middle Eastern-influenced score aside, there's not much from this carnival of grotesquerie to unsettle or indeed intoxicate. That includes Peter Stormare as an underground S&M film-maker called Dino Velvet, lurking in a Hallowe'en den of reds and blacks. If Mr Velvet had been equipped with horns, toasting fork and a whiff of sulphur he could scarcely make his presence more obvious: say hello to old Nick himself. Stormare has cornered a market in villainous slime - Fargo, The Lost World - but his agent ought to keep close watch or they'll be booking him for panto next.

As for Cage, he does the best he can with a role of surpassing dourness. He's one of very few actors who make going nuts look believable, even desirable, but reining in his naturally ballistic instincts tends to flatten him. His mood perks up when he teams up with Joaquin Phoenix, and the pair have some nice bantering scenes together, one of them in front of an acid-green-and- yellow wall that feels like a rainbow after the relentless murk of the porn underworld. But things soon turn dark and grungy once more as the plot is cranked up into a revenge thriller and Cage is required to turn action hero. It says much of Schumacher's film-making sensibility that the finale first rips off The Silence of the Lambs before switching to a graveyard under pouring rain. His appetite for Gothic excess shows no sign of flagging. It's a shame, because under the control of a more thoughtful director 8mm might have caught not just the moral rot but the squalid enchantment of the world it investigates. As things stand, this just isn't up to snuff.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'