Untraceable (2008) / Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for grisly violence and torture, and some language
Running time: 101 min

Cast: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Lewis
Gregory Hoblit
Screenplay: Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinker, Allison Burnett

A tech savvy killer puts up a snuff website called "Kill With Me", featuring a webcam showing his victims in grisly peril in "Batman"-style slow-death contraptions.  The more people tune in to the webcast, the quicker the victim is killed.  Despite the fact that anyone who views the murders is a willing accomplice, millions continue to log in.  Diane Lane (Hollywoodland, Must Love Dogs) is FBI agent Jennifer Marsh, one of the leading investigators of cybercrimes in the country,  She and the rest of her cronies on the force are stymied by the creative killer's knack for covering up his tracks, and things go from bad to worse when they find that he's local to their operations and he begins to set his sights on them. 

I'm of two minds about the merits of Untraceable, as I do enjoy the underlying themes regarding the cynical, and quite accurate, view that many people will find entertainment in others misery so long as they are unseen, anonymous observers.  One only has to look at the proliferation of websites where videos are uploaded and exchanged featuring all manner of suicides, homicides and graphically disturbing tragedies that the dregs of humanity (interjecting my opinion here) routinely watch in order to feed their perverse hunger for displays of torture and sadism.  As we find out more about the killer's motives for creating the site, there is almost a sense of sympathy for his actions, though skewed by the fact that he's a madman, because what he is doing is holding up a mirror to the world, calling the viewers out for what they truly are -- fueling the entertainment-through-agony subculture that has proliferated since the advent of file sharing.

At the same time, one can only wonder what lessons can be learned by the film's hypocrisy.  Not only is the killer hypocritical for continuing to give these viewers what they want, but his victims are pretty undeserving of whatever crimes he thinks they've committed, even if they are symbolic agents of who is responsible for his pain.  Digging even deeper into where the film errs, the deaths are quite graphic and the manner in which these scenes are edited play more for entertainment than realism.  By doing so, those with a thirst for dark and sadistic torture porn will find plenty to like, while those who would generally agree with the message of the film, that people around the country are f**ked up in a serious way with what they find entertaining, is all but lost by the fact that the makers of this film seem to find it pretty damned entertaining themselves.

So, really, the one thing that I initially deemed to be praiseworthy has turned into another criticism, which makes Untraceable virtually without merit for those who aren't turned on by sickening scenes of torture.  Though Diane Lane gives a quality performance, and director Hoblit (Fracture, Hart's War) continues to give his films enough interesting style to compensate for his lack of adherence to plausible rationale, the script is leaden with clichés and convenient shortcuts.  The agents investigating the case live in the same town as the killer is pretty damned convenient, presumably set up so that we can have scenes of Marsh and her young daughter in jeopardy.  Colin Hanks (King Kong, Orange County) plays fellow agent Dowd, and his interest in internet dating has him put the proverbial red shirt of expendability early (for you "Star Trek" fans).  I realize that these agents want the killer to keep exposed as long as possible in the hopes he'll slip up and provide clues, but as people flood in to result in the eventual deaths of his victims, they make no attempt to block access to the site.  Their only means of keeping the public out of the site is to have a press conference announcing the existence of the site, which piques the curiosity even more.   With law enforcement this inept, it's no wonder the killer is practically omnipotent.

More gimmicky than good, Untraceable intends to ride the high sensationalism quotient for all it's worth from beginning to end.  If only the social commentary could have been less self-serving, and the plot machinations less pat, we'd have one of the niftier thrillers to come out in recent years instead of just another to pile on the heap of torture-trash.  Rather than holding up a mirror to the world to show the darker side of humanity, entertained by what should repulse us, they're talking out of both sides of their mouth by making the repulsiveness pretty damned entertaining.  For a film that has a moral lesson in mind, it isn't as bad a case as preaching to the choir --  it's worse.  It's enabling the sinners.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo