Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross
Rated: R for grisly violence and torture, and some language.
Parental Notes: The R rating is well-deserved. The deaths in this film are protracted and gruesome, making the film not for impressionable youngsters.
“Untraceable” starts with two scenes that pretty much sum up the entire film. In the opening scene, the villain of the film tortures a kitten to death, thereby heavy-handedly proving that he is A Bad Guy. In the second scene, the FBI Cyber Crimes unit gets a lead on an online identity thief through some essentially impossible computer work and sends a unit to “knock down a door” and bring the guy in — in the middle of the night, without a warrant. The entire rest of the film consists of the villain being A Bad Guy (moving from helpless kitties to humans) and the heroes mis-using and mis-explaining technology and largely ignoring warrants and similar police procedures.
It’s unfortunate, because the underlying themes of “Untraceable” are interesting. It clearly set out to be an examination of man’s inhumanity to man as well as a critique of the internet’s role in the phenomenon. The villain uses the web as both venue and pace car for his murders: he streams video of the victims live on a website and uses the number of people visiting the site to regulate the speed of the victim’s death. The more people who visit, the faster the person dies (each one in gruesome fashion). Every visitor to the site is an accomplice and they know it — but they visit anyway. As word of the site spreads, each victim dies faster than the one before, even once the FBI issues a statement that the deaths are real and people should stay away.
Cyber crimes agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane, “Killshot”) heads the effort to find the killer, with help from the Portland police department. The killer’s site is impossible to take down, she says — then launches into an explanation that will leave anybody even slightly knowledgeable about how the web works beating their head against the seat back in front of them. The filmmakers should have taken a page from the “X-Files” and “Star Trek”: if you have to explain, use fake technology or something general enough that the educated folks in your audience won’t immediately start poking holes in what your characters are saying. The rest of the film is full of similar technological errors, and each one makes the supposedly expert characters more ridiculous.
One internet-related thing the film does get right is the content of the comments on the killer’s website. They seem taken right off a gruesome YouTube video’s page — they’re cretinous, cruel, and disgusting. The underlying premise of the film is an accurate one: people have a strong drive to watch the suffering of others. Sites that contain huge galleries of gruesome real-life videos, photos, and written accounts are all over the web if you know where to look, and they are populated by the same sort of people as the anonymous visitors to the site in “Untraceable.”
On the bright side, the heroine is one of the better strong female characters to grace the screen this year (at least, until she makes a painfully stupid and badly-written blunder so that she can spend the last act of the film getting up close and personal with the villain). She, her mother, and her young daughter live in a large house in a rainy Portland suburb. Marsh works nights so she can be with her daughter, and takes great pride in raising her daughter well and catching bad guys. Lane gives her both intensity and vulnerability, and refrains from taking the performance over-the-top. It’s a solid performance that deserves a better vehicle.
Ultimately, whether you enjoy “Untraceable” will depend heavily on whether you know too much about the technology in the film to be able to suspend your disbelief. This is probably a taut, horrifying thriller if you can overlook the immense technical blunders. If you can’t, it’s a painfully terrible movie.