he high point of veteran director Joel Schumacher’s capable thriller sees the film’s narrator, a private investigator named Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage), unmask the vicious pornographer he’s been hunting for months. He finds the plainest of men. “What did you expect?” asks the pornographer. “A monster?”
There are no certifiable monsters in this movie, only monstrous acts and deeds evil given its banal due. Small-town Pennsylvania private eye Welles, a family man, is hired by the lawyer of a rich widow to track down the mystery behind a sordid 8 MM movie found in the widow’s husband safe. Is it a real snuff movie — porn that ends with the murder — or a hoax?
Thus Welles agrees to enter the unvarnished side of L.A., and what he comes up with proves that sex and murder are in fact still entwined, at a price. Overall, it’s gripping descent that Cage handles deftly, taking cues from Gene Hackman’s portrayal of a troubled eavesdropper in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” In hell, bad corrupts even the good. But what unfolds as a mystery eventually collapses into a kind of vigilante movie that depends on cathartic violence to make its point.
That doesn’t minimize the quirky strength of the film, which for most of its length has the appropriate feel of storm drain murk. Cage’s hangdog look for once does him in good stead while Joaquin Phoenix shines as a porn shop clerk. The underrated Peter Stormare is wonderful as weirdly wisecracking pornographer Dino Velvet (“If there was no honor among perverts and pornographers, the whole fucking business would fall apart.”) Though the theme is porn, the script (by “Se7en” write Andrea Kevin Walker) dodges the temptations of exploitation, an accomplishment of itself.