Untraceable is 2008’s first installment of torture porn. It’s a predictable thriller that blames a bloodthirsty public and big media for fostering an atmosphere of retribution violence. Diane Lane gives a solid performance as FBI cyber crimes Special Agent Jennifer Marsh who discovers an untraceable website (“killwithme.com”) where a murderer tortures victims at a rate constant with its number of visitors.
The unwritten subtext of the gory torture scenes is that the horrific murders pale in comparison to the punishments doled out daily by American military at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prison camps. So long as the American government continues to brutalize people, it seems we will continue to see horror thrillers like Untraceable arrive in cinemas.
Written by a committee of Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinker and Allison Burnett, Untraceable starts with a darkly humorous jab. Our anonymous killer (Joseph Cross—Running with Scissors) sits a kitten in front of a sticky rat-trap that will ensnare the feline for web viewers to witness its gradual demise. It’s a back-handedly-benevolent comic narrative gesture that eases the audience into the gruesome torture and violent visual images yet to come.
Jennifer Marsh is a widowed single mother living in a modest house in Portland, Oregon with her mother (Mary Beth Hurt). At work, Jennifer nails identity thieves and pedophiles that she can call in surgical police strikes against quicker than she can go out for a coffee.
As such, her prescient leap of logic about a kitten killer’s inevitable aptitude for torturing people to death comes too quickly to allow much suspense to build before the first human victim makes his appearance. A taser becomes cinema’s modern-day chloroform when a man is abducted in a sports arena parking lot before being stripped, cut and shackled in front of a webcam with an intravenous needle that speeds bleeding with every new visitor that logs on.
Some clever satire attends a discussion among FBI agents over whether to publicize the situation, fearing it will accelerate the man’s death. But their concerns are quickly cancelled when a huge number of web hits prompt the inescapable fate.
Director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear) ramps up the tension with the second webcam killing that involves the use of sunlamps. The picture takes on the tone of a Saw franchise slasher pic where the mechanical method of insuring a grisly death takes on as much importance as the incident itself.
And yet, the keystone of the plot rests on the visually shocking suicide of a college professor who combines a well-placed gunshot with a bridge fall to insure his desired result. A helicopter films the graphic sequence before disseminating it to the public on local television. Here the filmmakers outdo themselves with a disturbingly real vision of expiration by suicide that is shown repeatedly to underscore the responsibility of the media to the motives of our resident psycho.
Untraceable provokes discussion over the way snuff films were thought to be the stuff of myths even just a few years ago, but are now widely available to any adventurous web surfer wanting to watch someone being killed. It ultimately fails as a thriller because the script is so anxious to make some oblique point about the power of the web and exploitation media that it forgets about Jennifer’s underdeveloped psychological journey.
There aren’t enough layers of visual meanings for the plot to add up emotionally. What you see is what you get, and as the famous quote about pornography goes, “you know it when you see it.” Death has become the new sex in American cinema. MTW