Untraceable is a movie built on toothpicks and glued together with thin ideas. It begins smart and then contradicts its own message then contradicts that it contradicts its own message.
Diane Lane plays FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (who inexplicably has her own imdb character page.) Ms. Marsh isn’t a field agent, instead she sits around a computer terminal and tracks down the fraudulents that litter our world wide internet searching for helpless victims. It’s a big world to be searching through, with it’s own intangible language of numbers and codes and mirrors and walls, but she’s an expert alright. She can glean a lot about a person just by knowing what kind of merchandise they’re buying. Then she runs into a stumper. Someone is running an untraceable website in which victims are put into torture devices, just as clever but not as gory as the ones used in the Saw films, and the quicker viewer ship escalates the quicker the victims die. It’s the Nielson ratings system from hell.
The word that is applied to the title, “untraceable”, isn’t completely accurate. The website isn’t traceable with the limited equipment that the FBI has on hand. The super computers used by the upper echelons of government are off limits (thank God for the screenwriters sakes) and because internet usage in foreign lands is out of our jurisdiction (and their laws aren’t as strict) the serial killer is using mirrors of his server in countries we can’t lawfully get to. So, he actually could be traced, but then there wouldn’t be a story.
Gregory Hoblit directed the slick and intelligent Fractured last year with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. Here though that slickness feels a little out of place. It hardly amplifies the dark, mysterious and tempting world of the internet. But this isn’t necessarily the downfall of the film.
As smartly as “Untraceable” wants to be taken it really doesn’t live up to the promise and by the time we’ve reached the third act there have been so many more moments of story cheats than there are of clever twists that you become completely uninvolved. Why does Agent Marsh only kind of peek into the back seat of her SUV when it would have been just as easy to lean that extra foot to check it out? Why even after her fellow FBI agents have turned up as victims do they allow Agent Marsh to wander around the city by herself without protection? So the writer’s can get to the obligatory ending in which the hero faces off with the villain. It’s due to Lane’s pared down but insightful performance that we feel any tension at all when the time comes.
But who’s the real villain here? Is it the serial killer? Or is it the media and public who treat violence as a form of entertainment for ratings? This would have been an interesting angle to really dig into if the film hadn’t convoluted it’s own message. If only it didn’t try to persuade people to come to the theatre to enjoy the same kind of titillating acts of glorified violence that it speaks out against. If only the filmmakers knew when to stop sympathizing with it’s serial killer. When Diane Lane finally declares “Let’s go get this piece of s***!” You hardly think he’s a piece of s*** anymore. Instead you think his original victims were the pieces of s***. The thin characters end up more as metaphors of our violence possessed society than they do as characters, so as metaphors you kind of want them to get their comeuppance. But you cheer politely because Lane is still the good guy, and that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? I guess if you cheered a lot, you would disrupt the toothpicks and it would all come crashing down.