8MM vs. Se7en

The points that 8MM make aren’t moot, just grisly. But you have to wonder if they are still worth it.

There’s something alluring about the underground. Whether it be criminal or simply social, that which exists unbeknownst to the majority can be perversely enticing. Such is certainly the case with the medium of film.

Parallels

  • Dark thrillers
  • Same writer
  • Unrelenting climaxes

I suppose it’s human nature to be attracted to the seedy, the dark, and the forbidden. Recent incarnations of the Goth counterculture seem evidence of this. This morbid attraction is largely responsible for the success of such films as Se7en and 8MM. With the former, we the audience take a tour of the underworld of depravity while tracking down a ruthless killer who is trying to expose it.

Enter the dank domain of John Doe, an evidently warped individual in the sea of human waste in a city suspiciously similar to New York. Doe is infatuated with early Christian church fathers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, as well as Dante’s Inferno and the monastic art of Hieronymus Bosch. All these fuel his hatred for society’s blatant toleration of degeneracy.

The more we get to know him through the eyes of Detectives Sommerset and Mills, the more morbidly sensible he becomes though. It is only through the objectivity of Sommerset, balanced by the fervency of Mills, do they find the will to apprehend this serial killer.

Andrew Kevin Walker wrote both films. Walker has a twisted uncanny sense for the depraved. When it seemed that the dark thriller had all but petered out (not much since Silence of the Lambs anyway), along came Se7en. It was singular in message, relentless in method.

8MM doesn’t do much relenting either. The story is intriguing enough. Private Investigator Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is hired by a wealthy widow to prove the falsity of a “snuff” film found in her recently deceased husband’s vault. A snuff film is a pornographic film wherein a person is killed on camera — basically the sickest of a sick industry.

Both of these films borrow their mood from early shocking trend-setters. Both have reminiscent elements of Taxi Driver and the supernatural Angel Heart. 8MM aspires to be what Se7en was, but Walker hasn’t been able to one-up himself this time around.

What both 8MM and Se7en excel in is an unforgiving climax. Neither give in to contrived endings as did Kiss the Girls or The Devil’s Advocate. Girls was thoroughly unimpressive and had nothing lasting to say, save some disturbing carnage and wasted drama. Advocate‘s final act was solid, but then they chose to yank the carpet out from underneath me at the very end. By making the whole escapade nothing but a dream, it seemed to me that any message building up throughout was reduced to an awkward Twilight Zone plot. If it weren’t for that ending, the movie as a whole had a lot of valid things to say about the human condition.

Distinctions

  • Depth of depravity
  • Moral counterweight

In a word, 8MM is assaulting. It forces us to embody the character of Welles and walk with him into the depths of wickedness, much in the way that Se7en did. Yet, somehow the latter was able to make its point without totally becoming its subject matter. In Se7en, we got just a taste of the other side, yet retained part of our innocence. 8MM starts out with that taste and promptly turns rancid as we reach the conclusion.

Think of the scene in Se7en with the sin of Lust (don’t worry, I’ll spare you the details). It was highly shocking, no doubt. I remember cringing when I first saw it, part in pure disbelief that this could be shown on the Big Screen. The rest was reserved for the sheer psychological horror of the crime. Keep in mind that none of the actual crime scene was shown to the viewer, just all the background. Director David Fincher took us all the way into the heart of darkness and then let our minds extrapolate the rest. And that’s how he succeeded with perhaps the darkest part of the film. The same is true for the finale. We all knew what was being delivered in that box, but we never actually got to look inside it. Fincher lets it fester inside our imagination.

In 8MM, Shumacher takes us much deeper. I suppose you could consider the “bar” raised by Se7en, so that Shumacher had something to out-score. Yet all is not his fault. This script invariably was destined for the macabre. If the Lust scene in Se7en was too much for you, then don’t even bother with 8MM. That’s pretty much the pace throughout.

What 8MM lacks is a good-guy antagonist, much the same way Kiss the Girls did. What both Nick Cage and Morgan Freeman needed in those two films wasn’t better chase scenes or blood-n-gore enemies, but an objecting equal on their side to balance the drama. Against Freeman’s moral anchor was an equal, yet opposite, Brad Pitt in Se7en. We don’t have that in 8MM. Walker tries feebly with a porn shop clerk, played by Joaquin Phoenix, but his character isn’t Welles’ equal, just a polar opposite. There isn’t the same dynamic as with Se7en.

However, 8MM isn’t without a dichotomy of wills. Instead, it is represented in just one man: Tom Welles. His obvious outer layer symbolizes the purity of middle American life. The understanding wife, the new baby girl, the family dog and two-story house. In short, the American dream.

The second face of this man becomes the dark underbelly of the porn world. Welles’ fixation with his pure notion of justice and civility won’t allow him to turn this job down. It would be easy for any other man to simply walk away from this, but he can’t let it go. When he gazes at his infant daughter, he still hears the rattling of the 8MM projector.

As he gets deeper, these two worlds begin colliding. He doesn’t simply wait to call his wife after each day’s work; he calls her in the middle of his experiences. He is constantly torn between consoling his wife’s fears about this case and avenging the young girl’s alleged death. This almost schizophrenic quality of Welles provides both the moral protagonist and the vindictive antagonist.

In Se7en, these two qualities were distinct characters. Detective Sommerset (Freeman) provided the moral character who, although jaded, knew enough about the city to keep it at a mental bay. His new partner Detective Mills (Pitt) brought a balance to their relationship, longing to bring salvation and justice to a city that didn’t want either.

Likewise, Welles has to become what he despises to see justice to fruition. In so doing, the fine lines between Welles’ defined worlds blur. The very peddlers of the stuff he is fighting become his allies (the store clerk) and the upper class are the unexpected villains. On Welles’ final retaliatory binge, the audience watches its own bloody “snuff,” Shumacher’s last rebuke.

Both films have much to say about humanity and its inherent doom. Both show us worlds that none of us desire to become a part, yet secretly fascinate us. Se7en resonated the loudest in a culture deafened by nihilism and materialism. 8MM was a vile journey into the underground of pornography, while an examination of the insecurities of the pretentiously upstanding life. The ideas raised by 8MM aren’t moot, just grisly. The ultimate question is, “are they worth it?” I think not.

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