Agent Jennifer Marsh: "High-end tech and low-end porn."
Agent Griffin Dowd: "You sure he's a guy? If it's a women, she could be my soulmate."
Psychological thrillers, such as Untraceable, are far more welcome these days than woeful gore porn films like Hostel or (god forbid) Saw with its never-ending flow of sequels of increasing mediocrity (as of 2008, Saw is up to its fifth entry...with six and seven already announced. I doubt even my great-grandkids will love long enough to witness the Saw series coming to a close). Untraceable fundamentally functions as a 100-minute episode of a police-procedural television crime drama. In the vein of psychological thrillers such as Se7en and Silence of the Lambs, director Gregory Hoblit has created a visceral thriller warning the use of technology against the populace.
Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Lane) works at the Portland, Oregon FBI Cybercrimes Division. Along with her partner Griffin (Hanks), she generally spends her working hours shutting down music pirates and paedophiles. Jennifer is soon faced with a new and infinitely more deadly adversary when she comes across a website called KillWithMe. The tech-savvy lunatic running the site offers a live video feed to horrific acts of torture. After whetting the pervosphere's appetite with a live kitten sacrifice, the webmaster moves onto human victims. The live on-air murders accelerate with each click of a visitor's mouse. The serial killer behind the site is intelligent, and has worked out a technique to ensure the website is totally untraceable as well as impervious to attempts at removing it. The rumour of its existence catches fire, and in no time it's one of the hottest Internet stopovers. Jennifer quickly becomes obsessed with apprehending this impossibly clever internet predator, in the process finding herself ensnared in the killer's deadly game.
Untraceable is an enjoyable slick thriller: it's smart, merciless and tightly told without excessive exposition that lulls. In the 21st century the film's plot has great relevance and potency: a killer filming his victims die in elaborate ways while allowing the event to be viewed live on the internet. The more hits the site receives, the quicker and more violent a victim dies. "You know, if no-one was watching now, you'd just be sitting in water," the killer informs a victim who's neck-deep in water while a sulphuric acid drips into the tank (one drop for every internet hit the site receives). "But the whole world wants to watch you die, and they don't even know you." As the hit-counter goes berserk, the water becomes battery acid; his flesh rapidly corrodes and he dies as people watch from their computers, courtesy of live video streaming. What does this say about human nature these days? It's simple - the net has accelerated and magnified the morbid impulse to gawk at train wrecks. Over the years, the net has made us more uncivil and more inhuman.
At the core of Untraceable lies a moral question: if a person is being tortured online and you knew the URL where the streaming video can be found, would you visit the site? Furthermore, would your decision be influenced if you knew the person's death is hastened based on the volume of the site's traffic? These days snuff sites do exist. And, reportedly, in some communities they're quite popular. It doesn't take much expertise to uncover an online video of someone being genuinely executed. Seek and you shall find. Taking this one step further, what is it with mankind's fascination with the horrible? A majority of the population watches the news everyday (or listens to it) to learn about the latest local murders or tragic accidents. As we drive past an accident site, we slow down and observe the scene. Has mankind truly become sadistic voyeurs?
For the first half of Untraceable, the veneer of intelligence it exhibits is truly amazing. During said first half, this tense thriller is compelling in the way that a thriller like Se7en is compelling. Director Hoblit took pride in the realistic portrayal of an FBI pursuit of online criminals. Unfortunately, there are far too many unbelievable elements and obnoxious clichés in the film that the authenticity of the investigation process scarcely matters. Furthermore, it seems the more obvious methods of police work are jettisoned. After the first two victims are identified, the investigators never seem too fazed about establishing a possible connection between the two. As it is, if the (what would've been utterly obvious) connection was established the police would have had their criminal in the bag within the first hour of the film's runtime. But no - the five credited screenwriters exploit a formulaic structure and clichés to no end. Not a single cliché stone remains unturned in the film's rush to a jaw-droppingly stupid conclusion.
Most clichéd are the characters. Jennifer is a widowed woman and a neglectful mother with family problems. Colin Hanks' computer geek works with almost impossible efficiency. And towards the film's climax, a character reveals over the phone he's found something vital. Instead of relaying this vital information over the phone (not even in brief summary), this character explains he'll reveal it later on when he's face-to-face with the voice at the other end of the phone. We know he's not going to live very much longer. Poor guy never stood a chance.
Untraceable ends up containing stupid filler material as if the screenwriters were on autopilot during the writing process. Instead of this filler material, the writers should've been establishing more build-up. By this I mean the website automatically goes from the killing of a kitten to the killing of live humans. It jumps straight into the nitty gritty, and as a result the nitty gritty feels unearned. The killer should have whet appetites more extensively; perhaps starting with something small, like a rat, before moving up to larger house-hold pets. Another irritating aspect is the killer's impossible ability to capture prey without any trouble at all. And in the space of a few days he can somehow conceive an elaborate torture method for a victim. In these few days he's also capable of purchasing the proper equipment (it would cost a fortune...how does he pay for it all?) and rigging it up without the neighbours hearing any noise. The reasoning behind the killer's murder spree is also inadequate. It's nothing mind-blowing - in fact there's nothing to make you gasp or leave you speechless. It plays out as if nothing substantial is being revealed.
The rote thriller elements also make an appearance: red herrings, poking around dingy basements, and the good old reliable killer-coming-at-what-the-heroine-loves gambit. Another thing that irritated me is that without much promotion, the site is able to reach millions of hits within a matter of seconds. I don't think so...
To its credit, the film manages to avoid relying on gore to "build suspense". Hostel, for example, was simply gory murders with no substance. Untraceable is able to hold audiences in suspense with the intriguing premise. In fact, if you ignore the preposterous conclusion and endless clichés, this isn't a bad film. But in the last 20 minutes the film descends into a dark abyss of nothingness. It becomes a laundry list of clichés minus any originality or cleverness. It concludes with a whimper. The heroine, as if in a stupid horror film, continues doing things so asinine it's laughable. It doesn't provoke anymore chills...instead it provokes derisive chortles. It's as if the filmmakers who made the first two acts were replaced by Uwe Boll collaborators for the final act. It's frustrating that such a promising premise died without a trace.
The always dependable Diane Lane is competent in the title role. As she moves through the script's laboured contrivances, the good news is that Lane is easily watchable. She appears to have more emotional range than, say, Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. The fact still remains that Lane is forced to endure a pretty disappointing script. Maybe she was initially seduced by the great first half of the script, or maybe she needed a paycheck. She occasionally lends a touch of class to an otherwise tacky thriller; striving to keep the script afloat during the last half with little success.
The supporting cast is effective, although moderately tiny. Colin Hanks has inherited a portion of his father's amiability and Billy Burke has the perfect square jaw for his part as the extraneous cop/pseudo-love interest.
Untraceable feels half-baked. However it's a competent suspenser that conveys a fairly potent moral statement about human nature in the digital age ruled by the internet. It's adeptly handled - an attractive colour scheme, a likable cast, fairly credible police procedures and some intense moments - but in the end it's ultimately undermined as it follows the modern thriller playbook to the letter. Into the last half it's cliché for exhausted cliché. This had the potential to be this decade's Se7en, but it's a missed opportunity.