A glossy veneer can’t disguise this snuff film

Untraceable

on February 02, 2008 by Mark Keizer
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As Special Agent Jennifer Marsh, whose job requires sitting at a Portland, Ore., computer tracking down cybercriminals, Diane Lane pushes a lot of buttons. But not as many as director Gregory Hoblit (Fracture) and his trio of screenwriters, who’ve concocted a pulpy program that tries to class up the increasingly passé torture porn genre with disingenuous swipes at our voyeuristic society. Surely someone noted the hypocrisy of lecturing us about a future in which live executions can be downloaded for $10, al the while knowing that $10 is about the cost of a ticket to this movie, where audiences are expected to enjoy watching people being gruesomely murdered.

Lane, free-diving into territory that ruined Ashley Judd’s career, should know better. Here’s a film in which her character’s partner Griffin (Colin Hanks) makes an offhand comment about Morse code, which no character in any contemporary setting has any business knowing, only because it’ll play a crucial role later.

Normally, Marsh and Griffin don’t need such archaic knowledge to catch bad guys. They need only a mouse and keyboard to nail credit-card scammers and sexual predators. But when they come across a kitten being offed on killwithme.com, they backdoor their Trojans, black-hole their IPs and do whatever else is expected of employees at the FBI’s cybercrimes unit.

And when their furious web surfing leads to the arrest of a gun-owning weirdo, one thing becomes certain: Cops who sit in chairs and type are not as exciting as cops who run and shoot. So it’s a good thing, at least for us, that after killing the cat, the mysterious psycho graduates to torturing people and streaming their agony live on the Internet. The catch is, the more visitors who log on to watch the torture, the faster the person dies. A running tally of users and a live chat accompany each slow and painful death.

With Marsh unable to pinpoint the killer’s location or shut down his website (for reasons articulated quickly, so there’s no time to decide whether they make sense), the investigation expands. She’s joined by the rote character of homicide detective Eric Box (Billy Burke), a friend of Marsh’s husband, who died in the line of duty, leaving her to raise pre-teen daughter Annie (Perla Haney-Jardine). With leads unforthcoming, Marsh and Box are essentially sidelined until killwithme.com becomes active again, at which point they scramble to find the killer before the victim is dead, the demise hastened by the fast-accumulating website hits.

After a very respectable career as a television director (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue), Hoblit got off to a fast start in the movies, directing Edward Norton to an Oscar nomination in 1996’s Primal Fear. But until the step backwards of Untraceable, he was a slightly above-average director of glossy cop and courtroom thrillers. (The gloss here is courtesy of DP Anastas Michos, who lays dirty concrete and steely blues atop Portland’s natural lushness.)

Had Hoblit cared enough to make this more than an R-rated Lifetime movie, he could have wagged his finger at the emotional and intellectual detachment that allows for the online popularity of everything from celebrity breakdowns to, if one decides to play along, strangers being bled to death or scorched in a vat of acid. But the stabs at topicality, including an allusion to the execution of journalist Daniel Pearl, are ones the movie doesn’t deserve to make. Especially when it shamelessly puts Annie in the torturer’s sights and later subjects Lane to a laughable woman-in-distress climax that confirms Silence of the Lambs’ place as the gold standard for this type of material.

While it would be unfair to say there aren’t moments of reasonable suspense, playing off our natural aversion to people being tortured does not constitute good filmmaking. Terrible things happen to people in snuff films, too, but no one would confuse them, or Untraceable, with worthwhile cinema.

Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: Diane Lane, Billy Burke and Colin Hanks
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Screenwriters: Robert Fyvolent & Mark R. Brinker and Allison Burnett
Producers: Steven Pearl, Andy Cohen, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Hawk Koch
Genre: Thriller
Rating: R for some prolonged sequences of strong gruesome violence, and language
Running time: 100 min
Release date: January 25, 2008

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