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Untraceable Is Thrilling but Pointlessly Gruesome

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2008 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
<i>Untraceable</i> Is Thrilling but Pointlessly Gruesome

DVD Release Date:  May 13, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: Jan. 25, 2007
Rating: R (for grisly violence and torture, and some language)
Genre: Suspense
Run Time: 101 min.
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Actors: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Lewis

Computers, cell phones, e-mail—how many thrillers have been bogged down by scenes of characters sitting in front of monitors, tapping into e-mail accounts, breaking codes, and altering programs? The genre has not clicked with audiences. Remember Perfect Stranger, one of last year’s worst films? If not, I don’t blame you. It bombed. We’re all trying to forget it.

Untraceable is one of the first technology thrillers to generate actual thrills. Too bad that the film is representative of a terrible cultural trend—the mystery built around videotaped torture. While not falling into the “torture porn” genre of such films as Saw, Untraceable is an ugly film that shows vile forms of human suffering. Yet its horrific killings are, sadly, not much more graphic than an average episode of Criminal Minds or CSI—two of the top-rated series on TV. It seems the country has become hardened to the increasingly inventive ways fictional killers dispatch their victims. So it stands to reason that a feature film, for which viewers have to buy a ticket, would supply a grislier dose of sadism.

Diane Lane is FBI Agent Jennifer Marsh, a widow who works the cyber beat with her partner, Griffin (Colin Hanks). They visit suspect Web sites, trace the sites to find out where they originate, and, when things get hot enough, send in the cops to apprehend the offender.

The two of them stumble onto a new site, killwithme.com, and track the site’s morbid images. First is a dead kitten, killed by the person (Joseph Cross) who runs the site. But soon it’s human beings, tortured in ways that increase the victims’ pain and suffering as more viewers log on to see what’s unfolding.

The site becomes an Internet sensation, but the FBI team proves incapable of tracing its source. The site’s IP address keeps changing, and the FBI has no jurisdiction over the matter, Marsh explains to her superior, throwing in terms like “exploited server” and “botnet.” Who knows if any of this makes sense in the world of IT. Lane talks fast and pushes past the jargon, allowing us to get back to the bleeding bodies boiling in hydrochloric acid (yes, we actually see such a thing).

There’s only one place for the film to go—toward a direct confrontation between the villain and Marsh. That’s the path it takes, as the killer exploits the people Marsh most cares about to slowly close in on Marshall herself.

Untraceable is unpleasant to watch, but it could’ve been a much worse film than it is. Lane is fine, while Hanks (Tom’s son) offers decent support. The weak spot is the script—co-written by Allison Burnett (Feast of Love) and two first-time screenwriters—which has its share of clunky lines that even an Oscar-nominated pro like Lane can’t make sound natural. But director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Fracture) knows how to build suspense, even when the writing lets him down. Hoblit’s earlier thrillers were interesting character studies of clever criminals. Here, however, the killer’s rationale is almost an afterthought, explained late in the proceedings, after we’ve sat through multiple acts of unimaginable cruelty.

In an attempt to justify its black heart, Untraceable pivots on the idea that the people who exploit human suffering deserve to suffer themselves, and that we, the audience, are all culpable in allowing for—even encouraging—violence and death. This is the film’s attempt, as it nears its conclusion, to make a socially responsible statement about humanity’s bloodlust. But the film we’re watching centers on human killing packaged as entertainment, with the requisite finale of fighting and finishing off the villain, which generated a hearty round of applause at the screening I attended.

The film wants it both ways. It wants to indict the very behaviors it encourages. How repulsive. Untraceable is certainly skippable and missable, but given the continued popularity of these kinds of stories, it won’t be the last time we’re exposed to this sort of thing.


Questions? Concerns? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@earthlink.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; some profanity, and some jokes about online pornography; several profane posts are shown on a computer screen, as viewers react to the deaths of the victims; discussion of steamy online chats.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A woman’s bare upper back is shown as she cries in the shower.
  • Violence:  A kitten approaches a poisoned bowl of milk and is later shown laying dead beside the bowl; man is pulled into a van and later shown being tortured, with a Web site name carved into his chest; man is gagged, but blood gushes out of his mouth; a full body shot of the corpse after it’s disposed of; a victim is Tasered by the killer; a man is bound in cement while heat lamps are activated, blistering his skin until it flays; blood appears in a chemical solution as a man slowly dies; an FBI agent carries a loaded gun, and fires it; an FBI badge is pinned to a bare chest; decomposing corpses are shown; a videotaped suicide is shown several times, with the victim shooting himself then falling off a bridge.