Untraceable lambastes us for being amoral voyeurs as it panders to our baser instincts at the same time.
Such apparent hypocrisy wouldn't be so bad if the film worked as either a suspense thriller or an airtight whodunit. But Untraceable, about a killer who tortures his victims on the Internet while inviting the rest of the world to watch, abandons any pretense of mystery by revealing the degenerate's identity about a third of the way through.
Diane Lane, far-too-often better than the movies she's stuck in, plays Jennifer Marsh, an Internet specialist with the FBI. Her job is to track down the Web's bad guys, most of whom steal people's credit card numbers and go on big-time buying sprees. One thing the movie does do well is force us to ponder the wisdom of inviting computers into our homes so wholeheartedly, considering how much evil can be accomplished through them.
Tracking down white-collar identity thieves wouldn't make for much of a thriller, of course, so director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Fracture) and his team of three screenwriters quickly make things more deranged by having Marsh click onto a Web site called Killwith me.com. That the site is as unsavory as its name implies is clear from the get-go; the first thing it encourages its audience to watch is the killing of a poor cat.
From there, the site graduates to showing the torture and deaths of people. To make matters worse, the torture devices are rigged to kill the victim faster as more people log on. The FBI pleads with the public to stop visiting the site, but that only encourages more traffic - and more repulsive means of torture.
Marsh is assigned to the case, which of course means that her life will be in danger soon. And not only hers, but her precocious young daughter's and probably her roto-tilling mother's as well.
Untraceable wants to have it every possible way. It criticizes our culture for devolving to the point where millions of people don't think twice about becoming accessories to a series of gruesome killings, then shows us the repulsive tortures - involving heat lamps, bloodletting and sulfuric acid - in ghastly, if not exactly gory, detail. But trust me, when a guy's having his skin peeled away from him, a few seconds onscreen is enough.
Not that Untraceable deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as such gore-porn epics as Captivity and the four Saw flicks; it's far more restrained than those torture-fests. Certainly, the filmmakers see it more akin to Silence of the Lambs, employing depravity in service to a taut story centering on a strong woman. But comparing Untraceable to Silence of the Lambs is like comparing Lawrence of Arabia to Ishtar. Both involve desert settings, but the similarity ends there.
Lane gives the film her best shot; she's pretty much the only reason to see it. There's an intelligence mixed with ferocity that makes her performance compelling, far-more-so than anything else in the film.
For the sad truth is, once the killer's identity is revealed, there's very little left in Untraceable to keep audiences interested. It's pretty easy to see which of the supporting characters is going to end up dead, especially when one of them phones Marsh to tell her he's got the case figured out.
The script also has a maddening tendency to endow its characters with knowledge they shouldn't have, and to toss out plot points clumsily designed to misdirect the audience. Some you'll probably fall for, but most are painfully obvious.
And the movie ends in a final shot that's inexplicable, not to mention anti-climactic. But then, there's not much about Untraceable that doesn't fall short of expectations.
Watch a preview and see more photos from Untraceable at baltimoresun.com/untraceable