Untraceable tries. Boy, does it try. One can just imagine the pitch meeting presented to gullible studio suits - “It’s Silence of the Lambs meets Saw! Get a name star and high profile director and you’ve got gold!” Well, in its present configuration, Diane Lane is your main marquee draw and Gregory Hoblit, the man behind Fracture, Hart’s War, and Frequency is your Master of Suspense. Together, they conjure up a dread quagmire filled with pointless exposition, cloudy character motivations, and more than a few leaps in logic. Toss in a fair amount of geek cyberspeak and you’ve got bewilderment on top of boredom.
Jennifer Marsh is an FBI agent specializing in Internet crime. Working out of the Portland office, she tracks down cases of identity theft, fraud, and pornography. Working closely with partner Griffin Dowd, she takes her job very seriously. Her only relief from the daily horrors she sees online are her aging mother and her precocious young daughter. Thanks to a tip, Marsh stumbles across KillWithMe.com, a site showing the slow starvation of a kitten. Within days, the image changes to that of a bound and gagged man. Hooked to a steady stream of anti-coagulant, the minor cuts on his torso are bleeding out profusely. Even worse, the number of hits to the address increases the amount of medicine. Suddenly, everything adds up in Marsh’s mind - there’s a killer somewhere out there, using the World Wide Web, and all who surf it, as an accomplice to their crimes.
In a genre that’s already died a thousand mediocre movie deaths, Untraceable is not the last stab into its heart of darkness. Instead, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a blueprint, a generic outline for something that, with the right creative input, could add up to something special. There’s no denying the supposed novelty of the premise - though the classic Chris Carter series Millennium did the concept better, and more compactly, during the run of the Lance Henrickson horror drama - but the minute we see a victim strung up in a dingy basement, trap apparatus convolutedly taking his life, we know we’ve ‘seen’ this all before. Lane brings nothing new to the mix - she’s Clarice Starling as a walking wounded widow, life zapped out of her thanks to endless overnight shifts chasing teenagers with stolen debit cards. What we need is a manageable monster like Hannibal Lecter, a Jigsaw styled jokester with some panache to his passion for death.
What we get instead is a mixed up murderer who voices one intent, and then instantly reneges on it to draw our policeman into his scheme. It’s a narrative conceit of convenience, a way to work clichés plot points and personal threats throughout what is, otherwise, a one man crusade against You Tube. Indeed, without giving much away, the TMZ exploitation of everything by the media, increased exponentially thanks to rabid fanboy file sharing, becomes the source of all our villain’s ire. Apparently, had he stumbled across Cute Overload instead of Shock Video.com, a lot of semi-innocent individuals would still be downloading smut. The rationale behind the crimes is so specious, so little boy lost in their configuration, that when we meet the fiend at the 45 minute mark, we loose all hope that the film will be anything other than routine.
You can tell that director Hoblit wanted to tweak the formula, to explore the elements of a standard police procedural with the added spark of a little puzzle box torture. Lambs managed its fear factors without resorting to tanks filled with sulphric acid or cement traps surrounded by heat lamps. It used a little something called character, and the inherent intrigue in discovering the truth behind the terror to set things on edge. Here, Hoblit jumps onto a bandwagon that’s long since left the depot. Arriving really late to the ‘gorno’ party is one thing. Thinking you’re capable of being the life of such an already overdone celebration is a cinematic fool’s paradise.
And still Untraceable plods along. After the too early intro of the killer, we see the storyline shift, chestnuts fall into place, and possible formulaic finishing moves appear. We just known Marsh or her immediate family (or friends) will be involved, and that the initial motives for the crimes will be turned so that last minute confrontations and subsequent heroics can be bolstered. Red herrings abound, from the everpresent meow of the family cat (calling back to the feline death at the beginning), to the moribund police detective whose status as staid love interest gets sidetracked for some scene of the crime inference. Even worse, it’s up to Lane to deliver more or less alone. When the biggest supporting cast member is Tom Hanks’ son Colin, it’s borderline b-movie time.
In fact, Untraceable does feel like one of those last ditch effort acting gigs by a former studio system face looking for a paycheck to save their estate. Lane’s legitimacy skyrocketed after her Oscar nod for 2003’s Unfaithful, though her nearly three decades in the business more than buffers any reputation. Older, wearing whatever problems her profession provides on her slightly craggy face, this is not a glamour shot part. But there is also a level of ludicrousness to Jennifer Marsh that begs some retrospection. The character presents questions like - why bring such horrible work home? Would you really leave key information on your computer for cyber dorks to hack? If you know all the tricks within the illegal trade, would you really let your daughter download a game from the web? And finally, with all the information you have, wouldn’t the obvious connection between the victims just jump out at you?
With a viable level of tension, with cold shivers running up and down your spine, much of this wouldn’t matter. But Untraceable just can’t deliver on its proposed fear factors. Instead, it borrows heavily from those that came before while bringing very little that’s novel or inventive to the terror table. If you don’t mind pedestrian plotting surrounded by uninteresting individuals going through the movie motions, you just might enjoy this film. There is no cruelty or creativity in this creaky cat and mouse. It’s just an uninspired combination of every crime thriller archetype ever offered. The only thing deadly about this film is how exceedingly dull it all is.