ď8MMĒ is a dark and atmospheric film. It shows us the evil that human beings are capable of doing. Scary!The story is about Tom Welles, a private detective who is hired by a wealthy widow to find out if a snuff film she discovered in her late husbandís safe is real.
"A film that can't be missed."
WARNING: This review analyzes the message in the film by looking at the characters, the themes, and the plot. To do this it is necessary to look at the entire story, beginning to end. Therefore, if you have not seen the film, please stop reading now; then, after youíve seen the film, please come back.
Tom Welles is not your stereotypical action hero because he has many flaws.
Tomís first flaw is that his marriage is less than solid. For example, his wife is not happy that he doesnít share any important details about his work with her:
TOM: Sometimes you canít know what I'm doing,
Itís better that way.
MRS WELLES: Itís always that way.
And, in the hideaway scene, he does not answer her repeated questions about what happened to him, and she gets frustrated:
MRS WELLES: You better start talking, Tom. Because if
you want to stay married you canít treat me
TOM: Youíre right. Everything you say is right.
MRS WELLES: Thatís not gonna do it. Thatís not gonna be
enough, Tom. Not any more.
Also, at the end of the scene, the following dialogue takes place:
TOM: I have to see Mrs. Christian. Sheís the only
MRS WELLES: To what?
TOM: Weíre gonna be okay.
As well as not sharing details about his work with his wife, Tom becomes so wrapped up in his investigation that he forgets to call his wife and ignores one of her calls. He also lies to his wife about his smoking. This is significant as it shows the quality of their relationship. (If he lies about smoking, what other lies does he tell her?) In fact, I think she is used to his lying. (When she catches him out by seeing cigarette butts in his ashtray she doesnít say anything, and when he isnít looking, gives him a disgusted look.) Finally, the shakiness of his marriage is obvious, because, when their first real crisis comes, she is ready to leave. The following dialogue shows this:
TOM: Thereís no one left to finish this but me.
Iíll call for you when itís safe to go home.
MRS WELLES: We may not be there when you get back.
TOM: I love you.
MRS WELLES: (She doesnít answer him.)
(It is possible that he has been such a bastard to her in the past that she is justified in giving up.)
Tomís second flaw is that he is overly ambitious. He courts wealthy clients. For example, he tells his wife, ďIf I do right by Mrs. Christian with the circle she runs in, this could be the break weíve been waiting for.Ē Also, because of his ambition he has learned to suck up to the right people. This is obvious in the following dialogue with Longdale:
LONGDALE: Iíve spoken to associates of mine in Harrisburg,
Lancaster and Hershey. You have friends in
TOM: Iíve been privileged to provide services for
people I admire.
Tomís ambition keeps him from doing the right thing. That is, in order to get the case, he promises Mrs. Christian strict confidentiality. Because of this, he does not show the police any evidence that Mary Ann was murdered. Ironically, one of the bad guys (Longdale) criticizes him for this:
Just because Mrs. Christian praised your discretion,
you sat on evidence of murder, dragged your friends
into it, family, into some old graveyard to dig up
a dead girl with no name that nobody cares about or
Tomís third flaw is that he is too confident for his own good. Because of this he ends up in an environment (the porn world) where he is not always competent. Max points this out to him:
I donít know what your scene is. You may like porn
as much as the next guy. But you donít look like your
average sleaze. More like your average fuckiní cop.
So when you ask people about fuckiní illegal stuff,
it has a certain patina to it.
Tom is shown to be incompetent in several ways. First, he doesnít ever realize Longdale is following him. We see Longdale watching Tom leaving the rear of Max's porn shop, then later, Longdale is watching the detective leaving Maxís apartment (Longdale is wearing a cap, and sitting in a car smoking a cigarette). Then, a short time later, we see Longdale watching Tom go into Celebrity Films. Secondly, Tomís incompetence shows up in the conference with the porn director, Dino Velvet. Even though Tom has not seen many of Velvetís films, he wants to make the impression that he has seen a lot of them. In the conference scene, Velvet almost catches Tom out. The dialogue where Tom sucks up to Velvet shows this:
TOM: Youíre a genius Mr. Velvet, a goddamed
genius. (Velvet looks disbelieving.)
Youíre the only one still transferring
film to video. I mean, nobody really
appreciates that kind of integrity
anymore. The grain and the gritty look
VELVET: What one is your favorite piece?
(It looks like Tom couldnít answer. Max cuts in and rescues him):
MAX: I know if I had to choose it would be
either ďChokeĒ or ďDevil.Ē The subliminal
imagery in ďChokeĒ is what gets under
(You can see by the looks exchanged between Tom and Max that Max has rescued Tom.)
TOM: (sort of vague Ė to Velvet) Well, ďDevilĒ
frightened me as much as it excited me.
But, uh, Iíd be hard pressed to choose a
(Velvet looks down at Tom as if he doesnít believe him.)
After the conference, Tom decides to work on his own, believing he can deal with Velvet and Machine by himself. But, he is terribly wrong. He almost gets killed, and, in a way, is responsible for Maxís death.
Tomís fourth flaw is that he identifies personally with the victim. He gets increasingly obsessed with solving the case, and, eventually, gets in over his head (i.e. almost getting himself killed, etc.).
His identification with Mary Ann is a gradual process:
First, when he sees Mary Annís normal-looking picture at the U.S Resource Center, she starts to become a real person to him.
Next, he makes his first visit to Mrs. Mathews and sees Mary Annís personal things, and this further increases his identification with her.
Third, he visits Mary Annís old boyfriend at the prison. After some dialogue, where it is obvious that Warren used Mary Ann for sex, we see that Tom is disgusted. Warren asks for a cigarette and Tom pauses, stares at his cigarette, drops it on the ground, grinds it out with his shoe, and says, ďI donít smoke.Ē Tomís disgust shows his increasing identification with Mary Ann.)
Forth, on his second visit to Mrs. Mathews he realizes how sad and lonely she is. (She is almost desperate for him to stay for dinner and four separate times she drops hints for him to do so.) His reactions to her show that he feels sorry for her, and is thus identifying with the situation and, therefore, with Mary Ann. As he leaves her house, he walks slowly down the stairs, and we see her framed in the doorway at the same time. Her
loneliness is symbolized as she stands in that doorway, and his feelings of sorrow for her are symbolized by the slow way he walks down the stairs.
Fifth, after touring some of the porn world with Max, Tom finds Mary Annís suitcase at a refuge run by nuns. He finds a piece of paper on which Mary Ann had written the poem ďStarbrightĒ. When he looks at it we hear her innocent-sounding voice reading the poem. This gives the scene a certain poignancy, especially as it happens after Tom has seen Stickís tapes.
Finally, in the scene where Wells tied Eddie up, Tom has completely identified with Mary Ann.
Tom Welles is not a typical action hero because he has a dark side, which is symbolized by his smoking. When the film opens in an airport, we hear a recorded message announcing that there is no smoking in the terminal. We hear it twice, once in English, and once in Spanish - the director obviously does not want us to miss it. Then, when Tom goes home, smoking plays a big part in that scene. Tom tries to hide his smoking from his wife. Hiding the smoking, in and of itself, is not serious, but what is serious is the principle of breaking trust. Thus, there is a moral defect to his character, and this shows he has a dark side. It is that dark side that explodes when he murders Eddie and plots to kill Machine.
One of the major ideas in ď8MMĒ is to show how an ordinary man (Tom Welles) can descend into lawlessness. As Tom makes his investigation, he goes deeper and deeper into the porn world, and becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the case. As Tom gets deeper and deeper into the case, Max becomes increasingly concerned.
Even at first, after Max has been hired, and has learned that Tom is looking for a snuff film, Max is concerned about the psychological effect the porn world might have on Tom:
MAX: Look, Pops, its not too late to change
your mind about all this.
Let me tell you, thereís things you'll
see that you canít unsee.They get in your
head and they stay there.
TOM: How do you know what I've seen?
MAX: Okay, fine. But everybodyís got their
limit . . . I'm just saying before you
know it, youíre in. Deep in it.
TOM: Donít worry about me. But thank you.
MAX: Youíre welcome. Pops, you dance with
the devil, the Devil don't change. Devil
Now, after Max has been working with Tom for a while, Max can see that the detective is getting more obsessed with the case. However, Max misinterprets Tomís obsession as an interest in porn itself. In the obligatory bonding scene, Max is concerned:
MAX: You get turned on at places like tonight?
TOM: No, I am not.
MAX: You donít exactly get turned off either.
TOM: (Stares at him.).
MAX: Devilís changiní you already.
TOM: Good night Max
It is just after this that Tom compromises himself (indicating that the ďdevilĒ is, in fact, changing him). This compromise is when he makes a deal with Velvet to get girls for a movie so he can expose Velvet and Machine:
VELVET: What kind of budget are we talking about?
TOM: $5,000 now. $5,000 upon delivery. Two
women. One white, one black. Hard bondage
of course. Other than that, trusting your
own artistic interpretation, I only have
VELVET: Okay. Challenge me.
TOM: I want to watch you work.
VELVET: You donít want a franchise do you? Steal
the recipe for my secret hot sauce?
VELVET: Thatís good. I appreciate that. Second
TOM: The other performer. He has to be that
animal you use. That man in the mask.
Tom must think that he will have to rescue the girls. Surely he would know that there is a real possibility the girls could be hurt or killed because he knows that hiring Machine had to pose a risk to the girls. This deal that Tom made with Velvet is a symbolic Faustian pact with the Devil. Faust is a man who made a bargain with the devil to gain limitless knowledge. And, just like Faust, Tom is making a bargain with Velvet, a bargain that will risk the unknown girlís lives, to get to the knowledge (truth) about Machine. Hence, Maxís earlier words, ďDevilís changiní you already,Ē take on a symbolic meaning.
After the meeting with Velvet, Max begins to get an idea as to what is really going on. He can now see that Tom is very committed (obsessed) with the case. When Welles leaves for the fateful meeting at Velvetís movie set, Max says to Welles, after the detective has left, ďAll right Tom Welles. Devilís waiting for you.Ē Note that soon after Tom escapes from the movie set, he takes the law into his own hands.
Tomís descent into lawlessness takes place in two stages: The first stage is where Tom acts more or less on impulse and kills Eddie. The second and final stage is when he goes to kill Machine. In contrast to the killing of Eddie, Tom carries out his plan to murder Machine in a cold-blooded and calculated manner. Tom going to kill Machine is a symbolic journey to hell, and is shown as follows: When the flames that are devouring Eddieís body are at their peak, we hear the sound of the plane taking off for the city where Machine lives. The flames are then superimposed on a shot of Tom inside that plane. The flames then fade away and the camera focuses on Tomís haunted look. It is as if he realizes what he is becoming. (When he gets to Machineís house, the detective is a cold-blooded killing machine - acting just like a hit man. He puts gloves on, screws a silencer on his gun, and does it all with a professional attitude and manner.)
One of the other important characters is Max California. He is a disillusioned musician who came to California to become successful. However, he was not able to make it, and ended up working as a porn shop clerk. In a lot of the film his character acts as a comic relief. He is a loyal partner to Tom, and this loyalty costs him his life.
Maxís knowledge and ability in the porn world is superior to Tomís. It is Max who knows where Stick and Velvet are, knows the identity of Machine, and is able to arrange a meeting with Velvet. However, in spite of his involvement in the porn world, Max is a moral person. He is concerned about the effect of the underground porn world on Tom (hence the ďdance with the devilĒ line), and is shocked by Stickís films and is relieved to see they are fake. In the bonding scene, he is concerned that the porn world is effecting Tom.
Another two characters I found fascinating were Mrs. Mathews and Mrs. Christian.
Mrs. Mathews works the check out in a supermarket. She is lonely, poor, and devastated by her daughterís disappearance. (She hangs on to the memory of her daughter by keeping Mary Annís birthday presents in her room, and by keeping her daughterís room the same as it was ever since the girlís disappearance.) She is depressed and a bad housekeeper (note the gross toilet).
Mrs. Christian is a rich woman from a wealthy old family. Her suicide after she found out the true nature of her deceased husband makes her a truly tragic figure. She is morally flawed, as she kills herself rather than report the whole thing to the police. Finally, her name is very ironic, as she is the one who gets Tom into a situation that is the very antithesis of Christianity.
As far as the bad guys are concerned, Velvet is a piece of work. He is a sociopath, but he is considered by many as a porn director with an artistic attitude. The following dialogue shows this:
MAX: Dino Velvet. Heís a producer/director/weirdo.
Heís like the Jim Jarmusch of S and M.
TOM: How hard is his stuff?
MAX: How hard do you want it? Bondage, fetish,
gothic hard-core. Definitely not for the
squeamish. Itís kind of hard to come by
though. Mostly out of the back of bondage
magazines. That sort of thing. But heís got
fans. This guy I know, he thinks itís art.
Velvet is aggressive, cruel and sadistic. He speaks to Wells in an aggressive fashion, and when lighting a cigar, he squeezes Maxís hand hard enough to hurt him. He threatens Tomís family (he puts a picture of Tomís family in his mouth, pushes it out, then sticks it on the wall with spit). Also, on the movie set, Velvet is armed with a crossbow, a dangerous and frightening weapon.
ď8MMĒ is actually a very moral film. It tells us several things about evil:
First, it shows that evil exists in people who seem ordinary on the outside, but, on the inside are monsters. Machine has a mother who goes to church, and he did not grow up in an abusive family. Also, he is ordinary and nerdy looking. When Machine takes off his mask, he says to Welles:
What did you expect, a monster. My nameís George.
You probably knew that already. Canít get your
mind around it, huh. I donít have any answer to give.
Nothing I can say will make you sleep easier at night.
I wasn't beaten. I wasn't molested. Mommy didnít abuse
me. Daddy never raped me. I'm only what I am. Thatís
all there is to it.
Secondly, the film shows that evil does not always have a deep and dark underlying psychological motivation. People may do it just because they want to. As the following dialogue shows:
TOM: Why did he want a film of a little girl
LONGDALE: Because he could. He did it because he could.
Then later, Machine tells Tom:
There's no mystery. Things I do, I do because I
like them. Because I want to.
Finally, the film tells us that evil is everywhere. That is, it exists among the rich and poor. Both the rich manís (Mr. Christianís) and the poor man's (Machineís) motivation is the same. Also, Tomís first job is to show a senator evidence that her rich and well-to-do son-in-law is committing adultery. Thus, evil exists in the ďup-marketĒ world of the adulterous couple that Tom photographs outside the fancy place in Florida, as well in the underground and sleazy porn world his investigations take him.
One important theme in the film is vigilante violence. Many people feel that criminals get away with their crimes (or do not receive sufficiently harsh penalties), and justice is not served. Hence, in films, vigilante justice is popular because people can vicariously experience the bad guys getting paid back. However, ď8 MMĒ is against vigilantism. When Tom goes home, he breaks down and says to his wife, ďSave me, Save me.Ē He is clearly suffering as a consequence of his vigilantism. And, when we see him slowly raking his lawn in the end, he is clearly traumatized.
There are several weaknesses in the plot.
First, Tom is a supposedly competent private eye, yet he forgets to hide the cigarette butts from his wife.
Secondly, the attempt to create suspense with the ďreaching-for-the-gun-just-out-of-reachĒ trick is overused: Eddie tries to get a gun that is under the car, Tom tries to reach for his gun when handcuffed to the bed, and Tom reaches behind a fence to get his
gun when he is fighting Machine.
Next, I donít believe a person like Velvet would really make a snuff film for a relatively small sum of money. (Velvetís anger in reaction to learning that Longdale got a million dollars implies that Longdale kept most of the million.)
Fourth, Machineís mother belongs to the Faithful Christian Fellowship. This is using the stereotypical ďevil-in-the family-that-goes-to-churchĒ idea, which is trite now.
Fifth, the fact that Tom got clean away with without the police investigating, etc. seems unrealistic. He went to the hospital with a stab wound, and I would expect that an investigation could ensue. And it would lead the police to him.
Next, the film does not make the point against evil strongly enough. Tomís torment was very minor compared to say, Macbethís. (Macbeth suffered intense inner suffering and torment caused by his guilt over murdering his uncle.)
Seventh, when Tom is pouring gasoline on Eddieís corpse, the head does not look as crushed as you would expect from the sound of the fatal beating Tom gives him.
Eighth, we donít see enough of Tomís emotional build up to the point where he can commit murder. The film, ďSevenĒ did it much better.
The directorís technique was very effective. Several examples stuck out in my mind.
The technique showing Eddieís murder is chilling in spite of the fact that we do not see it. Tom gets off the phone to Mrs. Mathews and goes back to Eddie and starts to pistol-whip him. We see Tom raise his hand, but do not see the first blow being struck. We only hear that and see Tomís face as he shouts, ďDie, die.Ē The camera then cuts to a few moments after the beating and we see Tom standing at the door. However, we still hear the blows from the inside, and Tomís voice, also from the inside, saying, ďDie you motherfucker die.Ē Tom looks back through the door (he is remembering it) and we still hear the sound of the beating. (The sound is quite graphic; it really sounds like bones and flesh being crunched.) The sound of the blows then becomes the bass of the music as the camera zooms in on Tomís hand holding his gun like a hammer. The gun and his hand are covered in blood. The camera zooms in further on his shaking hand still holding the gun. Then he walks away out of frame. A very interesting technique that plays with the flow of time.
The color palate used was mostly dark tones, creating an oppressive and sinister atmosphere.
The director used the soundtrack to telling effect in the final confrontation at Machineís house. The suspense created by just the scratchy sound of a needle on a finished record is
The main soundtrack, composed by Mychael Danna, uses devilish and demonic sounding chanting and wailing music, and adds a satanic feeling to the film. The music is played, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, and at different tempos and is interweaved into the scenes involving the porn world. It gives the porn world a Sodom and Gomorrah tone.
The directorís approach is realistic. There are numerous examples throughout the film. Here are two. First, instead of using the real Hollywood sign to herald Tomís arrival in LA (which would be trite), the camera pulls back to reveal a sign that only looks like the Hollywood sign, and is actually a mural on an outside wall. Secondly, the director took great care to make a realistic prop that no one will see. The prop was a letter Mary Ann wrote. In the very last scene, when Tom picks up a letter Mrs. Mathews sent him, the letter from Mary Ann drops out. Tom puts Mary Annís letter aside so fast you canít see it. (Because no one could read the letter anyway, meaningless scribble could have been written on it.) However, it is a real letter. If you freeze the frame, you can read it. The letter says:
Well, believe it or not. I went home. LA got real
bad. My Mom and I fought worse than ever. But I
called into the Sally Jesse Raphael show cause they
were looking for teens who donít get along with their
moms . . . So who knows, you might see me on TV
after all.In society, the interest in snuff films does exist. The director in his commentary said that, in certain parts of the world, there is a market for videos taken by soldiers of rape and murder. A pretty depressing thought.
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originally posted: 10/20/00 08:50:20