Changing horses midstreamBy Francisco J. Delatorre
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Runtime: approximately 120 min
With Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, and James Gandolfini
A few years ago, Joel Schumacher established himself as the director that destroyed Batman. You may remember Tim Burton’s beautiful and brilliant vision of the dark knight being turned into a garish display of pop-culture-saturated mise-en-scÈne and convoluted plotlines, first with Batman Forever and then with Batman and Robin. Recently, this director decided to reinvent himself by teaming up with one of the more creative (and twisted) writers in the industry. As a result, Joel Schumacher established himself as the director that destroyed Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote both 8MM and the superb film Seven. Unfortunately, Walker’s tragic mistake was to leave director David Fincher, with whom he made that jarringly intense film, for Joel Schumacher. What makes this particularly disappointing, however, is that 8MM could quite possibly have been a good movie, had Walker not changed horses midstream. You may remember watching Seven and having to take a shower afterward; this film forces you to do the same, but for a different reason.
The story is that of Tom Welles, played by Nicolas Cage. Welles is a fiercely devoted private investigator, whose drive to satisfy his clients often strains the relationships in his own life, particularly that with his wife. These strains are brought into the forefront when Cage takes on an especially trying assignment. An recently widowed elderly woman hires Welles to confirm her suspicions about a video she found in her husband’s safe: that this film of rape and murder is just another fraud and that the girl on the tape is still alive. In doing so, he reveals a monstrous nationwide pornography underground (through the help of a Los Angeles smut peddler, named Max California and played by Joaquin Phoenix), and becomes more and more disgusted with the “underbelly of civilization.” Throughout his search, he encounters the girl’s mother, and a number of innocent people who are in some way tied to this corruption. Ultimately each of the characters, including Welles himself, undergoes some sort of physical or mental destruction. The most frightening part of all, though, is the fact that all of the “villains” in the film are those regular joes you meet every day; people who were never abused, people who never went through any childhood trauma, people who would otherwise lead perfectly normal lives.
Although this is not the first time we have seen the undermining of virtue through surrounding corruption, this film does, to its credit, do it differently. Indeed, the story is an interesting one, despite some of its clichÉs (yet another cop-fights-with-wife scene), and I give credit to the writer for coming up with a story that is very frightening in its own respect. Some may argue that 8MM is significantly toned down compared to Seven, in that the subject matter of Seven is simply more grisly and disturbing. However, where Seven managed to frighten us with the horrifying murders planned and carried out by the culprit, 8MM manages to frighten us by presenting us with a more common foe, but one whose effects on the everyman can still prove extremely damaging.
Unfortunately, the methods used by the film to convey this idea lose a great deal in their direction. The character constructs are unlikely, their motivations are unclear, and their actions and choices are dubious. For example, Welles is simply too honest and dedicated to be a realistic detective character. Analysis of other private detective characters such as Chinatown’s J.J. Gittes and The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade provide a template of the gritty investigator who always gets his man. Welles, unfortunately, has the same sort of drive but is far too polite and sympathetic for his own good. Of course, there are other characters who stretch believability (the contact who knows just a little too much, the far-too-pure woman who takes her life in reaction to humanity’s dark side), as well as a number of choices made by those characters which are too “frighteningly radical” to be realistic. Unfortunately, little attempt was made to add dimension or depth to these characters in order to make what they did seem more justified. Two suggestions for our hero:
1. Stop calling home!
2. Stop trying to UNDERSTAND!
Schumacher’s style of direction, also, ends up severely detracting from the film’s overall effect. The first part of the film is comprised of a number of establishing shots and far away views of objects and events, placing the viewer at a large physical distance from the action. This has the unfortunate effect of portraying the story in an objective, distanced, past tense. It is this physical distance that ends up distancing the audience from the characters themselves, preventing us from being able to identify with anyone and thus severely nullifying the reactions we should be having. It is simply impossible to sympathize for the plight Welles has with his wife if they seem like movie characters rather than real people.
Later in the film, we do see a great deal more close-up shots, but since they take place so late in the film, it is difficult to overcome the characterizations that have been implanted in the audience by the first half. Indicative of this distance is a scene near the film’s end, when Welles asks to take revenge for the horrible things that have happened up to that point; this is meant to be a terrifying moment, because he is introduced to us as an individual whose virtue and dedication are his assets, and to hear him ask for such a drastic measure is to illustrate the psychological downward spiral he has experienced. Unfortunately, about 3/4 of the theater audience laughed when he said this, drowning out one of the most important scenes in the film and illustrating the film’s failure to grasp the audience.
Unfortunately, Schumacher, in his attempt to emulate the pace of Seven, forces the film (which runs normal length) to seem much longer than it really is. This fails for two reasons: first, the pace of Seven is so slow because the horrific things the characters and audience experiences require time to fully process; this is not true of 8MM, a more diluted thriller. Second, Schumacher places what is perceived to be the climax of the film approximately 80 minutes into it, and the remaining 40 minutes end up being decidedly anticlimactic, since they have this pseudo-climax as a point of comparison. Indeed, the audience finds itself waiting for the end of the movie 90 minutes into it.
Finally, this film to takes itself far too seriously for its own good. Where many disturbing or melodramatically intense films have traditionally injected humor at strategic points so that the audience does not leave too emotionally drained, this film does not. It attempts to make jokes at the beginning, although the visual style and form of the film to that point is far too serious and brooding to lend itself to humor. It does so again later in the film, using Max California as a sort of comic relief (and as a result one of the only character with a hint of depth, despite his dubious connections), and succeeds, but unfortunately the timing isn’t right. When a sense of humor is sorely needed, however, it just is not there, and the audience found itself laughing at what was supposed to be the more disturbing scenes.
One of the only saving graces of this film was the widely varied soundtrack, with original music by Mychael Danna. While the score itself borrowed heavily from various contemporary composers, it did exhibit a decent sense of what music belonged where and how to complement the emotions and visual effects with both original composition and current existing music.
In conclusion, Andrew Kevin Walker managed to write another good film. Indeed, this movie did have its fair share of good moments and interesting ideas. His primary mistake, however, was entrusting it to less-than-stellar Joel Schumacher as a director. I have found Schumacher, who has had some hits and misses in his directorial career, to generally miss the mark unless he is given a quality script and an impressive cast to work with (as is the case with Falling Down, Flatliners, and The Lost Boys). However, not even the quality of Walker’s writing was able to save this one. On my own personal ratings scale, with one balloon being worst and four empty soda cans being best, I’d give it a water weenie.