You could be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the thought of Untraceable. The premise sounds suspiciously like one of those “torture porn” flicks that so many, myself included, wish would just go away once and for all. Thankfully, the movie is far less graphic and nauseating than things like Saw and Hostel. It would hard - not to mention depressing - to think that director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, “NYPD Blue”) and Oscar-nominated actress Diane Lane would be reduced to the torture porn genre, wouldn’t it? While clearly leagues better than those dispiriting gorefests, Untraceable nevertheless falls victim to one of the pitfalls of them: inherent silliness.
Lane plays Jennifer Marsh, an agent with the FBI cyber crimes unit in Portland, Oregon. Her job typically consists of busting those who illegally trade music on the internet. Then her attention is drawn to a website called KillWithMe.com. The site provides a live stream of a kitten being tortured. Jennifer is disturbed, even as her superiors tell her to forget the site since “it’s just a cat.” She continues to monitor it and soon the site’s proprietor has replaced the kitten with a human.
The killer – whose identity is not a secret – puts his victims in prototypically complex torture contraptions that are rigged to the internet. The more people who log onto his site to watch, the faster the person dies. Because he’s a tech whiz, the killer has figured out how to bypass the FBI’s typical means of shutting such a website down or locate its origin. As the popularity of KillWithMe.com continues to grow, Jennifer becomes more and more determined to find and convict the killer.
Untraceable is intended to be critical of the “see anything” attitude of the internet. In our camcorder-obsessed world, you can, of course, log on and watch all kinds of disgusting, repulsive, and vile things: bizarre fetish videos, violent news footage, homemade gang fight tapes, etc. More than once in the film, Jennifer says that the people who log onto the killer’s website are “accomplices to murder.” The film is clearly trying to take reality to the extreme, to ask how our society can possibly go beyond the extreme creepy voyeurism that the World Wide Web already affords. This is the part of Untraceable that I like best. It’s a provocative premise, eerily not as far-fetched as it may initially seem. You have to wonder: at what point do the people watching these videos on the net become complicit in the actions being shown?
I can see why Diane Lane might have wanted to make this film. Always a very underrated actress, she probably liked the combination of mixing thrills with a serious attempt at probing some psychological issues. After all, it worked for Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs. Lane is one of those actresses who I gladly follow in any film that she’s in. There’s something about her that seems genuine no matter what kind of role she’s playing. I don’t always believe some of the actors that get cast as FBI agents in movies, but Lane seemed credible.
While Untraceable is an amiable enough way to kill two hours, it never gels into the kind of movie that would make me run out and start endorsing it to others. The reason why is simple: like most pictures of (or close to) the torture porn genre, it’s just a little too silly. Things like this don’t happen in real life, so they lose some of their fear-making ability. For example, have you ever noticed that the killers in these films rarely appear to have jobs, yet they seemingly have enough money to build elaborate contraptions to torture people with?
And the devices themselves? Give me a break. At one point, a man’s arms and legs are encased in concrete while a wall of heat lamps singes his flesh. I’m pretty sure no human being in the history of mankind has ever been murdered that way. Such things are way too gimmicky for my taste. I’m not even sure why a film would want to bother with them. If you want to be really scary, why not show a more realistic form of torture? Remember Buffalo Bill in Lambs, who kept the young woman in a pit in his basement? That was terrifying because it’s in the realm of possibility; psychos sometimes do that. The kinds of torture scenarios shown in Untraceable veer perilously close to what they are ostensibly trying to criticize. There’s little doubt that the filmmakers want the audience members to run out and tell their friends about the “sick” stuff on display. It’s a selling point, but not necessarily something that benefits the story.
I appreciate parts of Untraceable, and the potential was certainly there to make a near-classic in the genre. But the fact remains that some of the real stuff you see on the internet is far more disturbing than anything the film dreams up.
( 1/2 out of four)
Untraceable is rated R for grisly violence and torture, and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Untraceable
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