A film review by Craig J. Koban

UNTRACEABLE jjj
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2008, R, 100 mins.

Jennifer Marsh: Diane Lane / Det. Eric Box: Billy Burke / Griffin Dowd: Colin Hanks / Owen Reilly: Joseph Cross / Stella Marsh: Mary Beth Hurt / Richard Brooks: Peter Lewis

Drected by Gregory Hoblit / Written by Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinker and Allison Burnett.

UNTRACEABLE is a cold, calculating, tense, scary, and gruesomely effective serial killer thriller.  The genre itself, as of late, has found great difficulty trying to sustain itself in terms of having killers that are unique and original, but this film certainly has an utterly ingenious premise.

Instead of the standard, run-of-the-mill stalker that hunts his prey and kills them viciously without remorse or pity, the murderer in UNTRACEABLE commits his atrocities in a decidedly more ghoulish and macabre fashion: He captures them and places them in a homemade death trap that slowly kills them.  But thatís not the catch; the poor people that are placed in these fatal entrapments are only killed when people log on to the web site where the killing is broadcast in real time on streaming video.

Thatís right.  The millions that log on to the site out of sick and morbid curiosity are culpable in the personís death.

Who said surfing the web was not dangerous?

Thatís the hook of UNTRACEABLE, which is creepily dynamic and forcefully thrilling.  I will be the first to go out on record that my computer knowledge is, at best, fairly meager, so my job here is to state that the technology shown and described in the film feels plausible and realistic.  And, of course, if I am proven wrong by those out there that are PC savvy...well...it does not really matter.  The technically veracity is not the point here; rather, whatís crucial is the film sense of style and its unrelentingly level of dread and sense of sickening intrigue. 

The killer and his methodology are perverse to incalculable levels, much like the savage murderer in David Fincherís SE7EN, and the intrinsically fascinating and intriguing aspect of UNTRACEABLE is how it so quickly garners our involvement with the material.  Yes, the film is murky, dark, and depressing, but there is no denying the filmís polish and slick proficiency.  This film, like many other exemplary ones like it, exits in an odd vacuum apart from other films.  Itís challenging because, at face value, the film has reprehensible content that is not entertaining, per se, to sit through.  Yet, by the end of the film, you kind of commend the filmís sense of visceral impact.  And it's certainly not torture porn.  That genre only exists for wanton sadism and gore-to-the-extreme excess.  UNTRACEABLE has more up its sleeve than that.

The film may ostensibly be about an Internet killer, but it also manages some commentary on societyís morally sickening attraction to depraved web sites.  Moreover, the truly disturbing aspect of the killerís crime is not so much his motivation and techniques, but the faceless people that log on to his site and leave chat room comments that seem void of any common decency.  This is the most ruthless and deplorable angle to UNTRACEABLE: The antagonist is pure, cold- blooded evil, but itís the millions that log on to his site that are equally deranged.  Thatís the filmís second entrancing hook in the way it poses thought-provoking questions: Is the killer- if you look beyond his hellish actions - just revealing the darker underbelly of a Internet population that craves for this material?

The film opens with a sequence of shameful, revolting cruelty, where the killer (off camera) sets up his first victim on his web site, killwithme.com.  In this case itís a cute little baby kitten that is lured into a trap that makes it unable to move, causing the poor animal to starve itself slowly (as a cat lover, I found myself watching this sequence through my finger tips).  Word of this horrible site makes its way to a special FBI division that looks after capturing all forms of Internet predators and criminals.  FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane, giving an effective and strong-willed performance) works with her partner, Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks, also decent, looking astoundingly like his father Tom from twenty years ago) in Portlandís cyber crime division and watch over this site with idle interest at first.  Clearly, the bureau chief thinks that there are bigger fish to fry in the world than a person who would torture a helpless kitten, by Jennifer keeps her eyes on this site...just in case.

It seems that Jenniferís hunch was correct.  Within weeks after the kittenís demise killwithme.com showcases its next sick installment, which now involves a human being vindictively tortured.  To make matters ever more horrendous, Jennifer and her colleagues discover that this cyber killer actually gets assistance in the killing of the man by the number of hits that people make to the site.  More traffic = A quicker the death.  Of course, the FBI chief wants to make a public plea to tell everyone and anyone not to log on to the site for obvious reasons.  However, Jennifer correctly predicts that this move will only convince people to log on out of unhealthy inquisitiveness.

Jennifer then grows determined to stop this madman, and she pools her resources with that of a local cop, Eric Box (Billy Burke), but no matter what they do they find it almost impossible to stop this man's site.  This killer is not only smart, but ruthlessly determined and fiercely intelligent, seeing as he manages to find sly methods of ensuring that his site remains untraceable, even to the Feds (again, I am no expert, but the film engages in a lot of computerese and technical mumbo-jumbo that feels accurate).  The site, meanwhile, becomes something of a media sensation, which precludes that more desperate and lost souls out there will seek it out, no matter whoís in front of the camera being savagely killed.

I will not say too much more about the plot, but I will comment more on the filmís premise, which is, as indicated, sadistic and brutally enthralling.  The film is like a storehouse of everyoneís worst possible nightmares in terms of having an agonizing death.  One man in the film is tied up and hooked up to chemicals that are administered intravenously - even more so with more web hits - that causes him to bleed to death.  Yet another man has his legs and hands locked into cement and then is placed in front of multiple heat lamps and is slowly brunt to a crisp.  Perhaps the most ghastly murder occurs when one person is tied to a chair and placed in a huge vat that is filled with water.  Okay, not so bad, but then it is quickly revealed that acid will slowly be pumped in the water which, in turn, will slowly eat his flesh away from his body from the neck down.

The killer himself is an interesting creation and - much like other movie serial killers - his taste for blood was spawned by some sort of personal tragedy.  Eliminate the tragedy in question and the villain could be just another normal young adult with a flair for gadgets.  There is something so scheming, mean spirited and haunting about his methods.  SE7ENíS villain used the seven deadly sins as a launching pad for his atrocities, but this killer almost upscales him for showmanship.

Along with the filmís chilling provocativeness and relentless tension, the performances are strong, especially by the always-dependable Diane Lane, who has the thankless task of playing a woman that has to display forward determination, perseverance, and a soft vulnerability all at the same time.  Whatís nice here is that her FBI investigator is smart and cunning and the film and story around her works so well as a police procedural.  Her eventual discovery of the killer is almost as innovative as the killerís methods itself, but it also does lead to some unintentional questions, like, for example, if you knew the general location of the killerís base of operations, why not just shut down all of the power in the general area, hence, stopping the Internet-influenced murders? 

Ultimately, UNTRACEABLE is slick, smart, and clever with the material and premise that you, more often than not, find yourself not asking too many logical questions.  The film lures you into itís twisted tale and does a consistent job of sustaining our interest and odd attraction to the material.  UNTRACEABLE was directed by Gregory Hoblit, who previously made one of 2007's most underrated thrillers in FRACTURE (which also had a villain with impressive skills of avoiding capture), the time travel drama FREQUENCY (again, a film with a nifty take on a well established premise) and PRIMAL FEAR (a court room drama with equally artful twists and turns).  Itís clear that he knows his way around the ingredients of a decisively immersing thriller, and UNTRACEABLE is one thatís done with remarkable competence and is well written, nail-biting, and ruthlessly terrifying.  Calling it a cheap and exploitative bit of torture porn undermines this filmís worth:  Itís more than that.

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