Dir. Gregory Hoblit, US, 2008, 100 mins
Neither terrifying nor inspiring, Untraceable is still a curious portrait of a society that struggles to police itself, under siege from one of its own children. The much-feared 'enemy within' that Cold Warriors railed about is now sitting at his basement computer and playing with his chemistry set. It's an odd fit in the marketplace, a boiler-plate Jodie Foster tough-girl story (a Silence of the Lambs, several generations later), but with Diane Lane in the lead instead of Foster.
As a film, Untraceable ratchets up the psychopathology meter, with a villain who kidnaps his victims, and then simulcasts their executions from basement labs live on the Internet, accelerating the killing's pain as the number of viewers increases. Only intrepid FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) seems able to stop him, but not before the villain dispatches her best colleague and almost nabs her daughter.
The geek crowd might be drawn to the villain's oozing, gruesome guerrilla tech-lair, but Untraceable seems to seek a ghoulish young male audience without any young stars to make the connection. Foreign audiences may be attracted to an American thriller that tells its story without much need for subtitles, and the movie's ace in the hole globally could also be its psycho-killer, a homegrown terrorist in a story that avoids formulas of racial-profiling or a US vs. the world showdown.
In Portland, Oregon, FBI agent Marsh has settled into a routine of tracking cyber thieves and abusers from an office keyboard by night, and calling in the swat teams, with her nerdy fellow-agent, Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks) and her boss (Peter Lewis, a dead ringer for Mike Huckabee). The hard-boiled G-Woman, who lost a husband on the job, spends days in an old house with her daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) and mother (Mary Beth Hurt) - a twist on Georgia Rule'.
The work of the killer (Joseph Cross) first shows up on the internet when he kills a cat, and the hits spike. His site, in which he graduates to humans, is killwithme.com. The torture that viewers witness intensifies as more of them log on to the site, as does the reminder that those watching are part of the crime. Executions get nastier as the agents watch helplessly, and the victims' bodies turn up mutilated for the FBI to find. Things heat up significantly when the murderer targets the FBI agents themselves, for all the world to see.
In directing Untraceable's web intrigue, Gregory Hoblit (Fracture, Primal Fear) stresses the terror within. We don't see the worst moments of the victims' anguish (although we do see acid baths and bodies hanging by wires), and there's not even a hint of sex, for the purpose of anyone's pleasure or pain. We even get the motivation for the villain's crimes - his professor father's suicide, caught on television, after his mother's death.
Shot by Anastas Michos in a grey metallic palette that sledgehammers home the notion of a society subverted by technology, Untraceable has the look and the dialogue of an extended television drama. (Hoblit used to direct the cop shows Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue.) The script by Robert Fryvolent, Mark R. Brinker and Allison Burnett throws around computer lingo. Otherwise it's pretty standard fare about detectives hunting down this week's psycho.
Lane as agent and mother seems to be wearing no make-up, befitting a no-nonsense crime fighter with a daughter to raise. She is softer and more believable than the steely Foster has been in comparable roles. Lane is not afraid of looking haggard in a close-up, although the screenwriters must have been afraid to give her character any sense of humor
Colin Hanks is an amiable geek, trying to score his own dates on the net, even while tracking crooks. The perplexing figure is cynical Detective Eric Box (Billy Burke), brought in to crack the case, but the undeveloped character leaves the audience wondering why he's there at all, and what his odd name is intended to mean.
Sony Picture Entertainment
Mark R. Brinker
Mark R. Brinker
Michael L. Mayer
Mary Beth Hurt