Few studio films are as dark -- literally and figuratively -- as "8MM." Director Joel Schumacher stages much of this disturbing thriller at night or in subterranean dwellings. Given this bleak palette, cinematographer Robert Elswit doesn't take the usual film-noir route (high contrast, heavy shadows). Instead, most scenes appear to be on the verge of being completely engulfed by a very tangible, ever-encroaching darkness.
When the action briefly shifts to the bright daylight of Hollywood, the effect is as shocking as walking from a dimly lit theater into glaring sunshine. This is no aesthetic accident. In "8MM," Schumacher is less the preening stylist of "Batman Forever" and more the moralist of "Falling Down" and "A Time to Kill." And unlike "Seven," a similarly disturbing film that used highly stylized visuals and a fatalistic tone to prepare the viewer for its shock tactics of sadistic violence, "8MM" chooses a rather straightforward approach that should feel more immediate and personally threatening. As he follows private investigator and family man Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) into the violent fringes of the pornography industry, Schumacher doesn't want the audience to remain unscathed. They should feel not just Welles' discomfort and revulsion, but share in his eventual violation.
Welles suffers from the sin of pride and the illusion of security, conducting his surveillance business out of the comfortable suburban home he shares with wife Amy (Catherine Keener) and a baby daughter. His sense of discretion brings him to the attention of a wealthy widow who has found among her husband's most private possessions a small reel of 8mm film that shows a doe-eyed teen-ager being sexually assaulted and ritually murdered. Gradually, this consummate professional finds himself increasingly obsessed with tracing the fate of this young woman who, if found alive, would prove this "snuff film" to be fake.
Andrew Kevin Walker's screenplay presents pornography as the flip side of Hollywood, but unlike "Boogie Nights," which draws similar parallels in order to examine exploitation and complicity, "8MM" looks hard at the stomach-churning sub-hardcore underworld and sees (surprise) only degradation. Even thick-skinned, cynically detached Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), a punk musician/porn store clerk, ends up being scorched when he becomes Welles' netherworld guide.
As an intensely controlled Cage unravels the tightly wound Welles, "8MM" is also unmasked, revealing a standard suspense film beneath all the envelope-pushing bluster. The idea is to present a shadow world that anyone could slip into, but Schumacher isn't by any means a subversive filmmaker. He tries to unhinge the audience with this journey to the lower circles of hell, but he's little more than a tour guide, leading a safely air-conditioned bus through an exotic land.