Untraceable (review)

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Net Zero, Psychos Won

The original working title of this flick was Streaming Evil, which has precisely the right amount of built-in schlock for the tedious bit of horror exploitation this is. You can imagine Streaming Evil starring Sarah Michelle Gellar or perhaps Jessica Alba as FBI agent Jennifer Marsh, a dedicated worker in the cybercrimes unit and a chipper single mom on the side, all the better for creating jeopardy situations: oh no! a child in danger! and only her mom can save her! Or cast a no-name actress and throw it up on USA Networks on a Saturday night when no one’s watching anyway.
But something happened along the way: Gellar was busy, perhaps, and Alba passed, and someone had the frantic brainstorm to aim higher. And poor Diane Lane — who figured she’d better take this job because nothing truly worthy of her steely talent and electric screen presence was likely to come along and, well, crap, the mortgage still has to be paid — was onboard. But Streaming Evil wouldn’t do for a Diane Lane movie: she’s a grownup, and deserves, at the very least, a grownup title for her movie. A generically bland title, but still: Untraceable sounds just a wee bit more intellectual than Streaming Evil.

And here we are. With a flick that isn’t torture porn, oh no: it’s condemning torture porn. Of course it has to engage in a little torture porn, or else how would we know what it’s got its ire up about? With a flick that wants to remind you — desperately wants to remind you — of The Silence of the Lambs and its whipsmart, way-cool, fearless-under-pressure lady FBI agent yet gives its incarnation here little to do beyond tap on computer keyboards and fret in a maternal way about her daughter and the younger FBI agents under her.

Some sicko is killing people live on the Internet, streaming you-are-there video of his poor-sap victims being tormented in evilly ingenious ways… ways that speed up the pain and suffering the more people tune in. An intravenous drug drips faster as more surfers click onto the sicko’s site, killwithme.com, that kind of thing. And of course Lane’s (Must Love Dogs, Under the Tuscan Sun) Jennifer Marsh is on the job, trying to run the killer down before he kills again, and so publicly.

Fair warning: the first victim is a kitten, and while the scene isn’t graphic, it is very disturbing. The scenes of the human victims are also deeply gruesome, but there’s something about a helpless actor-kitty and its inability to consent to even pretend movie torture that is deeply distressing. I’d like to say that that was part of the point of Untraceable, that it wants us to examine our own reaction to the violence and degradation we see onscreen. But it undercuts itself, by the killer’s final gambit for Internet fame, by attempting to condemn us for finding its admittedly well-produced action-with-deadly-stakes enthralling, if only momentarily, while also, you know, making its admittedly well-produced action-with-deadly-stakes enthralling, if only momentarily.

What makes Untraceable so frustrating is that it is not instantly dismissible as yet another mindless indulgence in pandering to an audience’s basest instincts for blood and gore. Though the killer’s identity is hidden at the outset, and the film seems to be setting itself up as one of those boring exercises in guess-which-character-you-know-and-like-is-secretly-the-killer, that is not how it plays out. And there are hints of deeper commentary on the psychosis our entire culture seems to be suffering from, not just in the widespread enjoyment of torture-porn movies but also in our unthinking willingness to put ourselves under constant surveillance, as with our vehicular GPSes and OnStar subscriptions. But the three credited screenwriters — Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, and Allison Burnett, only one of which, Burnett, has a prior credit — can’t figure out what to do with what they have, and end up smacking us with faux-deep philosophy, like Jennifer’s horrible line: “I’m good at a lot of things, but I’m no good at losing people. I’m bad at losing people.” Come on! Is anyone “good at losing people”?

Director Gregory Hoblit has given us pseudo-high-minded junk like last year’s Fracture and the cheesy dick flick Frequency, but also the satisfying B-movie pulp of Hart’s War. I would have settled for satisfying B-movie pulp again here, too. Alas that Untraceable can’t even manage anything more than a would-be highbrow sheen on the lowest our cinema reaches today.

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Nayana Anthony
Fri, Jan 25, 2008 12:00pm

OK, it’s official. I’m staying in this weekend.

A Guy
A Guy
Fri, Jan 25, 2008 12:26pm

Diane Lane needs just one more ‘un’-prefix titled movie to complete the trilogy—Unfaithful, Untraceable, and ____. Sadly, ‘UNder the Tuscan Sun’ doesn’t count. ‘UNderwear’ gets my vote, but again, it wouldn’t really count.

Rob Vaux
Fri, Jan 25, 2008 1:07pm

Is the killer Cary Elwes? I bet it’s Cary Elwes. It’s ALWAYS Cary Elwes…

Fri, Jan 25, 2008 1:52pm

That would be an awesome twist, particularly since he’s not even in the movie…

Tue, Jan 29, 2008 10:12pm

Never mind the fact that on the show Millennium, Frank Black already dealt with a serial killer using the internet. Way back in 1998. 10 years ago the topic was relevant and timely. It sounds like all they did was make it much more graphic and violent.

Sat, Feb 02, 2008 2:38pm

I am pretty sure there was also an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets where they had to stop a murder from taking place on the Internet.

Mon, Feb 04, 2008 11:10pm

Well MA, the problem is I never know when I’m going to disagree with you and when I’d have to grant you a snickering “told ‘ya so…” This would certainly fall under the latter category.

What really killed it for me was the sequence where he captures her. They couldn’t expend the effort to come up with a more plausible scenario that didn’t require her to utterly shut off her brain? She KNOWS he’s tampered with her car, anyone with enough cerebral activity to support breathing would know better than to go from a relatively safe position when she’s got backup coming to go back and sit in the damn car. @#%&!! WHY??? He could have just as easily planted a bomb. And it doesn’t even dawn on the cybergenius cop to check the back seat. Straight out of the cheesy horror movie cliche’ handbook. You KNEW something was going to be up with the car from the motel.

I thought the house where Dowd was killed was going to be booby trapped and Marsh would miraculously escape.

The business about the video game didn’t make sense. Maybe I missed something, didn’t Annie say a friend (or did she specify Stella?) bought the download for her? It wasn’t clear to me how Owen would have manipulated this event.

The explanation regarding the NSA not helping seemed contrived, as did Jennifer’s boss’ failure to defer to her expertise on not holding the press conference – “I have no choice…” Um, yeah you do.

Was Annie not Jennifer’s daughter? I notice on the IMDB site Jennifer’s last name is Marsh, Annie’s last name is Haskins. I took a couple of quick pee breaks, maybe some bit of business I missed explained this?

Mon, Feb 04, 2008 11:27pm

The kid is her daughter. The backstory is that her husband (presumably the kid’s father, no reason to think otherwise) was a cop and was killed in the line of duty. Perhaps the idea is that Jennifer kept her maiden name when she married, but the kid has the father’s name. Or else the IMDB is wrong — it’s not infaliable.

Tue, Feb 05, 2008 5:38pm

The backstory is that her husband (presumably the kid’s father, no reason to think otherwise) was a cop and was killed in the line of duty.

Yeah, I did catch that but I actually don’t even recall any dialogue specifying the daughter’s last name. I’m wondering what IMDB uses as its source.