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Untraceable (2008)


  • Review: * ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Lewis, Tyrone Giordano, Perla Haney-Jardine, Tim deZarn, Chris Cousins, Jesse Tyler Ferguson
  • Director: Gregory Hoblit
  • Screenplay: Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinker, Allison Burnett
  • Length: 101 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R for grisly violence and torture, and some language

With the anonymity of the Internet, horror stories find a new outlet in popular Hollywood entertainment as Untraceable attempts to frighten the wary and titillate the voyeuristic.

Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is part of the FBI's cyber crimes unit where online predators and schemers are sought with impassioned vigor. When she comes across a website called killwithme.com, she discovers a kitten tortured to death when all it wants is a drink of milk. The audience understands immediately that this is just a precursor of things to come, but few will recognize the typical serial killer motif of violence upon animals leading to violence upon people.

She finds it disconcerting, but her boss thinks it's rather ludicrous until a man is put through a similar situation, intravenously fed anti-coagulants to help him bleed to death. As more people visit the site, the faster the victim dies. Thus begins one of the more torturous aspects of the film. From there, a man is cooked to death by increasing numbers of heat lamps and another is submerged in a vat of water that is slowly filled with acid.

At her side attempting to track down the killer are a small town police detective played by Billy Burke, a fellow team member with a penchant for online dating played by Tom Hanks' son (with Samantha Lewes) Colin, a seemingly disinterested FBI unit director played by Peter Lewis.

It's clear from the outset that Lane has chosen the role in an attempt to pay expenses between her various romantic roles and quality projects. She phones in a performance that every actress in Hollywood could play equally well or better. Burke and Lewis are clichés that barely deserve mention and Hanks is suitable, but nothing special. Even the serial killer played by Owen Reilly fails to impress yielding a fairly pedestrian and stereotypical performance. Meanwhile, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (TV's now-cancelled The Class) is unfairly targeted as a suspect early in the film simply because of his tangential association to one of the victims and is customarily revealed as gay.

The most disappointing aspect of the performances is that all these talented and semi-talented actors are shown up by young Perla Haney-Jardine as Agent Marsh's daughter Annie. Haney-Jardine, who got her start in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2, doesn't have a lot to do but is certainly more engaging than her compatriots.

While one would expect narrative inconsistency to be the film's biggest problem, the film suffers more from moral ignorance. While focusing on making a film that could possibly bring in a mass audience, the producers and writers could have added in a few moral questions for those plopping down large amounts of cash for a night out. The film had, and squandered, an opportunity to question not only the depravity of human nature that would allow for people to watch such things on the internet (though, the numbers of site visitors they present seems a bit inflated in that regard), but also the desire for compassion.

These people being tortured to death have very little likelihood of living and as the audience expects, all but the final victim will die. It's a given. However, when does a desire to solve a crime conflict with compassion? At one point, the FBI director takes the information to the public, although he has been warned and the audience knows the warning to be true, to encourage them not to visit, but ultimately directing more visitors to the site. His goal is to slow down the torture enough to get his agents in and rescue the victim, but with so little to go off of, would the compassionate thing be to tune into the site to help speed along their death or prolong the inevitable. Do they believe they can save someone when they have already failed and been misdirected before? Are they simply trying to save a life or are they hoping to give themselves more time to save others. It is a moral quandary and not one easily answered, but the question and the answer are entirely avoided; though the violence and shock value are not.

Outside of the graphic depiction of torture, Untraceable works like a poorly crafted version of a television crime drama. It tries to blend elements of torture flicks like Saw and Hostel in hopes they can bring in two types of audiences, but they end up alienating both because they try to be too much. If you want solidly crafted, compelling stories of internet crimes such as are presented in this film, I highly recommend catching any number of shows that deal with that topic better such as CSI, Law & Order and NCIS among others.