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maryann johanson | #BlackLivesMatter

Untraceable (review)

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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MPAA: rated R for grisly violence and torture, and some language

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