© 2008 Ray Wong
I can just imagine the pitch for Untraceable: "It's Silence of the Lambs meets Hostel meets YouTube." That's right, it's a techno-thriller with a bit of torture porn thrown in for the Internet age.
FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a cyber-expert: her specialty is to beat cyber criminals at their game. When she gets a tip on a new website called KillWithMe.com, her initial disgust turns into fascination: the website is practically untraceable. The owner of the site has found a way to move around, stealing resources from around the world, leaving a trail of false leads for the FBI to chase after.
At first, the site only obtains mild notoriety for streaming live the torture death of a kitten. Alarmed, Marsh is told by her boss Richard Brooks (Peter Lewis) that it's not something that interests the FBI, even as she warns him about the potential of the site. That is, until the site starts to stream the live torture of a pilot named Herbert Miller (Tim De Zarn). Apparently, the more people to view the site, the faster Miller will be killed. And before you know it, and to the FBI's dismay, the website becomes an instant hit. The more press attention it gets, the more people visit, and Marsh fails to block the site despite her continuous effort.
As more people get abducted and killed live, and as more and more people visit the website, Marsh, with the help of detective Eric Box (Billy Burke), is racing against time to find the identity of the killer, who seems to be always one step ahead of them. Worse, the killer knows who Marsh is and where she lives...
Diane Lane (Hollywoodland) tries something new by playing an FBI agent -- not only that, she's also a computer nerd. Too bad, Lane is too classy and pretty to play a nerd. It's not as if her performance is not convincing. It's just that the lack of character development renders her rather one-dimensional. And you'd have thought that for all she does on the job, she would safeguard her home computers more effectively. That said, Lane gives an interesting performance that gives the male-dominant thriller a softer side.
Billy Burke (Fracture) is fine playing yet another cop. Again, his character is poorly developed. The hint of relationship between him and agent Marsh is glossed over. Burke is not allowed to show a wider range of emotions, and the performance feels stunted. Colin Hanks (King Kong) is interesting as Marsh's sidekick and he, unlike Diane Lane, looks the part. You can't help but like the guy. Meanwhile, Joseph Cross (Running with Scissors) plays against type as the disturbed killer. His cold stares and wicked smile are creepy and effective. Unfortunately, he, too, suffers from a lack of character development.
The screenplay by writing team Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, and Allison Burnett (Feast of Love) has an interesting and timely high concept. As the Internet becomes more prevalent and ubiquitous, we often wonder how it would change our social mores, how people are desensitized by what they see or hear online every day, when instant gratification is the norm in cyber culture. I think the first act of the film successful captures this paradigm and creates enough suspense to string us along. Even the techno-babble sounds plausible, and only a true computer geek like me would catch the flaws.
However, once the killing starts, the plot falters. I was hoping for more cat-and-mouse game exploring the technologies, and how Marsh would be able to crack the killer's code to catch him. There's some but hardly enough, and it seems that the screenwriters just drop the ball. It seems that they've figured they couldn't possibly stay believable if they go on with the techno stuff. So they settled for a run-of-the-mill thriller with some surface psycho-babble thrown in. The result is unconvincing, implausible, and predictable. The plot loses steam in the third act. So many missed opportunities.
Director Gregory Hoblit (Fracture) does a good job giving the film a tight pace and ample suspense. I think they make a mistake revealing the killer early on -- they could have used the suspense a bit longer. But I can't really fault that on the director. The torture scenes are rather disturbing, but it's not like we haven't seen them before -- so what does it say about us? Are we so desensitized already? I give the director credit for showing just enough of the torture, then cutting away and letting our imagination take over. I think it's very effective. While it is far from the horror and grit of something like Se7en, the film does succeed in achieving certain heightened tension, only to have it dragged down by some rather silly sequences.
Over all, Untraceable is entertaining but misses the mark. The story falls short of making it a truly mesmerizing serial killer thriller/drama. Ultimately, it's unremarkably forgettable.
Stars: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Lewis
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Writers: Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, Allison Burnett
Distributor: Screen Gems/Lakeshore
MPAA Rating: R for grisly violence and torture, and some language
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.5 out of 10