If you knew a brilliant serial killer had somehow caused the power to go out in your car and on your cell phone on the middle of a deserted bridge on a rainy night, what would you do? What you probably would not do is get back in the car when the power is mysteriously restored without at least checking the back seat. This, of course, is exactly what FBI Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) does in the equal parts inane and disgusting thriller, Untraceable.
Jennifer works in the cyber crimes unit of the Portland FBI field office and lives in a nice suburb with her mother (Mary Beth Hurt) and eight-year-old daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine.) Working with her desk mate Griffin (Colin Hanks), she tracks down sexual deviants and identity thieves online. The first fifteen minutes of the film contains a mouthful of technical jargon to establish that Jennifer knows all about bot nets and backdoor Trojans.
What she doesn’t seem to know about is how to catch a killer who broadcasts his murders on the Internet. Because no one can just pull out a gun and shoot someone, this killer’s twist is to have the number of people viewing the site relate directly to how fast his victims are gruesomely murdered. The more “hits” he gets at helpmekill.com, the faster his victim bites the dust. The movie doesn’t trust the audience to understand the implications of this, so all of the major characters have to explain it out loud at various points during the movie. Even the killer has to say to one suffering victim something along the lines of “if nobody was watching, you’d be unharmed right now.” No kidding, buddy, we got it the first ten times someone spelled it out for us.
Jennifer teams up with city cop and hunky guy, Detective Box (Billy Burke), to try to find the killer and stop him. This, of course, leads the super intelligent, highly resourceful murderer with unlimited resources to target Jennifer and her vulnerable family. Everything zips along with ominous music, wild coincidences, stupid decision making like the getting back in the car thing, and suspended disbelief to the conclusion you’ve seen in every other movie like this that has ever been made.
If this were just a pretty derivative thriller with no real point to make, it probably wouldn’t be so bad. Director Gregory Hoblit is professional and slick and everything looks good. Lane, Hanks, and Burke give decent performances considering some of the idiotic plot contrivances they are asked to wade through. Unfortunately, the message the movie is trying to make, that we love to see the suffering of others and put our own anonymous voyeurism ahead of the life of a stranger, is undercut by the hypocrisy of the movie itself.
The serial killer’s murder scenes are elaborate and gruesome processes that Hoblit shoots with a maximum of blood and gore. There really isn’t any difference between some of these scenes and the torture porn of Captivity or other movies of that ilk. The movie wants to chastise society for watching this type of stuff, yet forces the audience to watch the very same stuff to get the lesson.
If the filmmakers had substituted some genuine tension for the flesh crawling violence and torture, this cast may have been able to put out an above-average thriller. Instead, it feels like a minister preaching against rock music while Led Zeppelin plays from the speakers of the sanctuary. You can’t have it both ways.