Untraceable (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Untraceable engenders a reaction that is one part fascination, one part disappointment, and two parts frustration. The film, which has the ingredients for a thoughtful, tense thriller throws away a compelling first half so it can descend into silliness and clichés. For a movie that works overtime to establish credibility during its first half-hour, Untraceable leaves no predictable, formulaic stone unturned in its rush to a jaw-droppingly stupid conclusion. It's almost as if the filmmakers who made the first two acts were replaced by Uwe Boll collaborators for the final 40 minutes. Then again, it's possible to believe this of director Gregory Hoblit, who achieved something not dissimilar with his previous feature, Fracture.

At the core of Untraceable lies a moral question: If a man is being tortured and killed on-line and you know the URL where the streaming video can be found, would you visit the website? Furthermore, how would your decision to type in that address be impacted if you know that the man's death is hastened based on the volume of the site's traffic? Considering the dynamics of web surfing and the kinds of sites that can be unearthed, the answer is not straightforward. I have never visited a snuff site but they exist and, in some communities, they are popular. It doesn't take much expertise to locate a copy of Daniel Pearl's execution. On-line, seek and you shall find, no matter what it is you're looking for.

Untraceable opens with a cruel and heartless video stream: a kitten starving to death after being ensnared in one of those sticky rat traps. (This scene alone will be enough to cause some viewers to leave the theater. It is not graphic but is extremely disturbing for cat lovers.) The name of the website is Killwithme. It shows the progression of the kitten's dilemma from when it is caught to when it dies. FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) and her partner, Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks), who work out of Portland's cybercrime division, watch this situation with growing horror but there are other, human-related situations that require their attention. Then, a week after the cat's demise, Killwithme ups the ante by depicting a human being tortured. He's trapped in a set-up that's designed to end his life. The more traffic the site gets and the faster the traffic comes, the quicker he dies. Local cop Eric Box (Billy Burke) becomes involved in the case and he and Jennifer pool resources to stop the serial killer. But he's smart and has figured out a way to make his website untraceable and impervious to attempts to remove it. The rumor of its existence catches fire and soon it's one of the hottest Internet stopovers.

With Untraceable, it's possible to be duped by the premise and the methodical manner in which the early portion of the film sets everything up. For a while, the film is compelling in much the same way that a picture like Seven is compelling. However, when the movie decides to make the threat more "immediate," the script becomes awash in contrivances and clichés. The manner in which the killer's identity is discovered is patently absurd, although it is telegraphed in the first twenty minutes via one all-too-obvious line of dialogue. (Hmmm… I wonder why he said that?) The climax, which is the result of the protagonist thinking she's in a horror film and therefore doing one stupid thing after another, is so asinine as to be almost laughable. It's doubtful the director's intent was to provoke derisive chortles.

The film's nearly fetishistic obsession with inventive deaths recalls Saw, although there are substantial differences. Untraceable seeks to be categorized as a thriller while Saw prefers the horror genre, but there are similarities in the ways the movies view death as part of a game between cops and a twisted mastermind. Both films have moral statements to make and their conclusions about human nature are similar. If one is looking for an optimistic perspective of what it means to be a member of this race, The Bucket List would be a better multiplex option.

It's a little surprising to find Diane Lane in such grim, grotesque circumstances. She is, after all, known for gentler fare. Maybe she didn't read the entire script and was seduced by the veneer of intelligence the early pages exhibit. Or maybe she just needed a paycheck. The supporting cast is effective, although relatively small. Colin Hanks has inherited a portion of his father's likeability and Billy Burke has the perfect square jaw for his part as the extraneous cop/pseudo-love interest.

The fact that the movie seeks to implicate the audience in the crimes by proxy is an interesting approach and it makes watching Untraceable uncomfortable. With a better screenplay, this could have been an unsettling motion picture - the kind that causes viewers to leave the theater shaken. Instead, however, because of poor choices by the filmmakers, the moral questions are shunted into the background and the only thing "shaken" as the end credits roll are viewer's heads - shaking with dismay.

Untraceable (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2008-01-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1