Movie Review: Untraceable
By Matthew Huntley
March 23, 2008
Serial killer movies have gotten so unimaginative, the only way to tell them apart is by the killer's techniques for offing his victims. Movies like Untraceable are no longer distinguishable by story, characters, mood or atmosphere, but by the staginess of the death scenes.
What Hollywood fails to recognize is how little audiences care about such elaborate set ups. They're not what's interesting or fun about serial killer movies. What lure us in are the interesting and relatable characters who become burdened by their obsessions to find the killer before it's too late. There are also the creepy, yet often charming, villains and their inexplicable motives. When these elements are at their best, some extraordinary films are made (The Silence of the Lambs).
The filmmakers behind Untraceable are only partially aware of this, and unfortunately not enough. By the end, the plot and characters become so ridiculous they lose all credibility and the movie becomes an embarrassing message-pusher, and there were times when I felt like pushing back.
Like the Saw movies, the killer in Untraceable uses ultramodern techniques to murder his victims. Actually, as the movie tagline points out, the killer isn't the one doing the killing. He simply provides the means, so I guess you could say he's more a kidnapper and conspirator. What he's done is set up a Web site called "killwithme.com" and the more hits the site receives, the faster the current victim will die. Their torture is streamlined live on the Internet using a web-cam, and as one character points out, "That makes everyone who visits this site an accessory to murder."
The means include bleeding the victim to death, baking them under hot lights, and having them soak in a tub of battery acid. It's funny, but after seeing more elaborate schemes devised by Jigsaw from the Saw movies, these seem uninspired (or at least unoriginal) by comparison.
Still, there are other reasons not to recommend this lamebrain thriller. Diane Lane stars as Jennifer Marsh, a cybercop whose job is to monitor the Internet for illegal activity. Just to show us how smart she is, the beginning of the movie has her find a little kid committing fraud. Within minutes, the cops arrive to bust down his door. Right away, we're supposed to think, man, she's good.
The dialogue spoken in the movie is so fast and zippy it grew on my nerves. True, the lexicon shared between Jennifer and her nerdy colleague Griffin (Colin Hanks) establishes them as professionals, but it ultimately alienated me from them as people. It's like the screenwriters just wanted to show off how much they knew about computers and Internet surfing.
Friends of mine who are more tech savvy than I tell me the computer mumbo jumbo is accurate, but that doesn't make it sound any less contrived. In fact, everything about this movie feels too convenient. Nothing is spoken that's simple human observation or nuance. It's all so heavily wrought it feels like the movie goes out of its way to jerk you around.
For instance, after Jennifer gets a tip about killwithme.com and starts seeing more people die, Griffin mentions, "If only one of the victims was a boy scout, then they could just blink Morse code and tell us where he's keeping them." Now, based on what he just said, we know there must be a scene where Morse Code is eventually used. In a smarter movie, this kind of dialogue might have simply developed Griffin's character (perhaps he was a boy scout once?), but no. It's there because the plot requires it to be. The same goes for a deaf man working in Jennifer's office. It's a rule in Hollywood that any time a character has a physical affliction, it has to be used somewhere down the line to move the plot forward.
And that's what's wrong with Untraceable - everything in the movie serves its idiotic plot. I use the word "idiotic" because the characters, including the killer, eventually stop taking the right precautions and make all the usual mistakes.
Now I know that all movies are supposed to manipulate the audience to some degree, but that's not the same as being jerked around. There's an art to manipulation, and if the filmmakers get it wrong the audience will lose patience and get defensive. Audiences want to be respected, not patronized; we don't want to see a movie where smart people act stupid.
Take the scene near the end that takes place on a bridge. It's dark, cold and raining heavily. Jennifer knows the killer is watching her because he's just turned off her car with some kind of remote control. If Jennifer recognizes she knows this, why the hell would she go back to her car after making an emergency phone call to the other detectives? I mean, I know the reason is so the plot can proceed towards its climax, but still, why?
One good thing about the movie is its sympathetic heroine, thanks mostly to Diane Lane's performance. Despite a script she's too good for, Lane is convincing as a cybercrimes agent and does make us care about her. In three different scenes, the movie allows her room to display her emotional range as an actress. The other actors, including Billy Burke as a Portland detective, more or less fill their roles accordingly and aren't given anything interesting to say or do.
On some levels, I could see the filmmakers wanted to make a satire (Wikipedia calls the movie a social commentary on Internet schadenfreude). While that's true, the movie makes the mistake of first wanting to adhere to its serial killer plot, which we've seen time and time again. An intelligent satire would have said to hell with the plot and tried making something that really honed in on people's obsessions with the Internet and reality media. But everything here is written or built around a silly potboiler instead of serving something biting and meaningful, and I grew frustrated with it.
Every now and then, a Hollywood serial killer movie can be fun and original (Copycat, The Cell), but these days they're too far and few between. Untraceable gets trapped by the genre's antiquated conventions and formulas and it's never able to break free.