Being a fan of Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth
, and seeing this labeled as a "mystery film", I felt that I needed to look closer at this film. In some ways now I wish I hadn't. Because godDAMN, this movie is bleak and depressing.
To sum up, a widow hires the P.I. Tom Welles (Nic Cage
) to find out if a "snuff film" she has found, showing a young girl being brutally murdered, is real. On his quest to identify the girl, and to find those responsible, he delves into the seedy underworld of illegal pornography.
Teaming up with the porn store clerk, and punk rocker, Max California (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix
), Welles discovers dens of depravity and witnesses the primal, carnal lust of men - and gradually becomes obsessed with the case.
That last part is actually pretty important. And even though the "investigator becomes engrossed in case" is not exactly a novel phenomenon (actually, it's hard not to imagine that this part of the movie is pulled straight from The Pledge
and Es geschah am hellichten Tag
), it is still fascinating to see Cage's Tom Welles slowly descend into madness as he gets deeper into the underworld.
But what really sets apart this film is the environment: As mentioned, Welles has to walk the halls of illegal pornography, and we're talking some pretty weird shit here. The film handles it well, however, and never gets explicit or overly gross. Still, following a family man like Welles as he explores this "other world" helps to showcase how different it is, and how he clearly doesn't belong there. It helps push a "human perspective" on the artificial world of gore, porn and gore porn.
Also worth mentioning is Joaquin Phoenix's Max California. Though he's not featured that much in the film (it's very centered on Welles), his character, with his almost encyclopedic knowledge of all things porn, still helps keep the film interesting, and once again it shows how radically different the two are - it's somewhat of a culture clash, and his being in the movie keeps it from being too Welles-centered.
...and that's the problem, really: The movie is so centered on Welles, following him in his investigation, that there are long stretches where nothing interesting really happens. Without Max California and some interesting dialogue, the whole thing quickly descend into a somewhat boring whodunit.
Also, after having the movie keep a somewhat stark realistic tone, towards the ending it suddenly turns into a pretty ridiculous action movie with some relevations that don't make sense, and are really just there to hammer home the point of "doing these depraved things is horrible, but perfectly normal".
If you can overlook the looooooooong stretches of boring P.I. investigation and the rushed, strange ending, there is still a quality film here about a disturbing subculture, greed and the value of human life.
Me? I couldn't, and that's why I'm giving this 3 stars.