In the wake of Heath Ledger's untimely death, the callousness and ghoulishness of the internet have lately been prominent to many film fans. Any film or celebrity news site with a comment function has been riddled with sarcastic potshots aimed at a dead man, answered by a smattering of ineffectual pleas for respect. It's just this underbelly of online media that characterizes Gregory Hoblit's thriller Untraceable, in which a serial killer murders people on real-time webcam for an audience of cruel perverts and half-wits.
The killer's sick m.o.--through website "KILLWITHME.com--is to kill his victims at a rate proportional to the number of online lookiloos he gets; his largely blasé viewers may not be terribly impressed but still they come back for more, and to add their comments on his elaborate deathtraps. This kernel of an idea suggests a smart thriller about the voyeuristic tension of titillation and disconnect afforded by the internet, the unearned safety of online anonymity, and "if it bleeds, it leads" ratings. Instead we get a tiresomely clichéd mashup of Silence of the Lambs and FeardotCom.
Diane Lane plays Jennifer Marsh, the shining star of the FBI's Cyber Crimes division, Portland office. A widow living with her daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) and mother (Mary Beth Hurt), Marsh's business is to know what's going on on the internet, and it's made her understandably cynical. When her routine of busting identity thieves and porno purveyors gives way to the threat of "KILLWITHME.com," she opines that keyboard tappers would just as soon "watch some strangers have sex" or "see a journalist get his head cut off" as check their stocks.
The screenplay by Robert Fyvolent & Mark Brinker and Allison Burnett sets the tone with an opening suite of scenes that put a kitty in danger. That low-voltage tension heats up when the killer stalks eight-year-old Annie, among other predictable targets, on the way to an inevitable showdown between Marsh and the villain. Untraceable avoids one cliché of the mystery procedural by not making the bad guy a character hiding in plain sight, though Hoblit awkwardly teases that possibility before unceremoniously revealing the killer midway through the picture.
But the clichés arrive, don't you worry. As do the nonsensical plot turns. One suspect is cleared on the basis of a hardly convincing alibi. The killer has technology that magically makes his voice sound like a natural woman. The turn toward the climax relies upon the hero's utter ineptitude and a huge risk on the part of the villain (at least the latter is established as a character trait). And though the film does a reasonable job of making the untraceable website sound credible (even if it isn't), couldn't internet service providers be compelled to block the deadly site, given the matter of life and death? Or to kill it as fast as Napster, couldn't the FBI threaten prosecutions for surfing to the site?
Of course, such logical leaps could be forgiven were Untraceable even remotely entertaining. Hoblit's been known to make efficient thrillers a cut above the average (Primal Fear, Fracture), ones that provide juicy roles for stars. But Untraceable has none of these qualities, save perhaps narrative efficiency (not to be confused with narrative interest). Though reliably sturdy, Lane gives her thoroughly generic role a thoroughly generic performance. It's enough to make one miss the unmotivated madness Nicolas Cage brings to each underwritten script he accepts.
As Lane's FBI colleague, Colin Hanks looks at his monitor and intones, "It's a jungle in there." He's right, of course, and the users on internet playgrounds are as implicated as the pushers. But the filmmakers, like their villain, willfully ignore their own hypocrisy. The torture-horror genre made so bankable by Saw gives the film its only energy. It's a sickening energy, like the upward surge of vomit or the churning of bile, but there you go: torturous bleed-outs and acid baths are all Untraceable has to offer.