Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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Director: Gregory Hoblit
Screenplay: Robert Fyvolent & Mark Brinker and Allison Burnett (story by Robert Fyvolent & Mark Brinker)
Stars: Diane Lane (Jennifer Marsh), Billy Burke (Detective Eric Box), Colin Hanks (Griffin Dowd), Joseph Cross (Owen Reilly), Mary Beth Hurt (Stella Marsh), Peter Lewis (Richard Brooks), Tyrone Giordano (Tim Wilks), Perla Haney-Jardine (Annie Haskins), Tim De Zarn (Herbert Miller), Christopher Cousins (David Williams), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Arthur James Elmer)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2008
Country: U.S.
Sometimes, all you can do is watchThe Internet is a very scary place in Untraceable, a gaping void in which technologically sophisticated sickos can simultaneously hide and reach out to an all-too-willing public fascinated by the dark side. Conveniences like online banking, music downloading, and Wikipedia are but a thin veneer hiding a frightening underbelly that the film holds up as a mirror to society. No one ever actually says, “You like to watch, don't you?,” but that's the essential question lurking in Gregory Hoblit's intriguing, but frustratingly flawed thriller, which hinges on a horrific high concept that is unnervingly plausible, yet executed with a little too much Hollywood relish. The dark cinematography, rainy exteriors, and grungy subterranean spaces work, but they all feel like they've been dialed in from other, better thrillers.

Diane Lane stars as Jennifer Marsh, a CIA agent who works in the cybercrimes division. She and her partner, the amiable nerd Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks), know all the tricks cybercriminals use to lure unsuspecting surfers into giving up their passwords and bank numbers, but neither of them have seen anything like www.killwithme.com, a live web site that suddenly appears one day streaming footage of a kitten slowly being killed and then graduates to human fare. The first victim has the web site's name cut into his chest and is then hooked up to an IV drip with an anti-coagulate in it. The sick twist is that the speed with which the liquid enters his body is directly proportional to the traffic the site gets; the more people who come look, the quicker he bleeds to death. It's a live, streaming snuff film in which every viewer is complicit in murder.

As a metaphor for the responsibility we take when watching sordid material that involves the degradation of others, it doesn't get much more direct than that, and the concept itself is really quite effective. Unfortunately, each successive online murder gets more and more elaborate, with one victim being seared by increasingly hot heat lamps and another being boiled in a vat of battery acid. It's not that such scenarios are so outlandish as to be unbelievable, but they begin to overwhelm the premise itself. To this end, the film has endured more than a few barbed comments suggesting hypocrisy because it's asking us to condemn a villain who entices the public to get off on violence while it entices the movie audience with the very same thing. On one level, this is a valid criticism, but it's also apples and oranges because, after all, in the film it's real people being killed while the movie is fictional. Plus, if we're going to condemn films that use screen violence to critique real-life violence, we're going to have an exceptionally long list of very good films to throw out.

While certainly compelling in terms of drawing you into the story, Untraceable has a number of nagging narrative flaws, especially the decision to reveal the web site's owner quite early for no apparent reason. Played as a deranged boy wonder by Joseph Cross, the villainous mastermind has a genuine reason for doing what he does that is central to the film's underlying message about the price we pay for turning others' suffering into our entertainment, but there's no good reason to see him up close and personal until the final reel. The early revelation undercuts the climax and eliminates much of the mystery. The heroine's budding relationship with a police detective (Billy Burke) doesn't generate much interest, although it does a nice job of setting up a potential damsel-in-distress scenario that thankfully does not culminate with the knight riding in for the rescue. For all of its flaws, Untraceable at the very least provides us with a smart, resilient, capable female character who knows how to save herself.

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