Diane Lane stars as FBI Special Agent Jennifer Marsh in "Untraceable."

Photo courtesy Sony Pictures / MCT,


★ out of four stars

The setup: An FBI computer crimes specialist (Diane Lane) hunts a killer whose website accelerates his victims' death as viewership increases.

What works: The production values are solid. This is a well-crafted piece ...

What doesn't: ... of junk.

Great scene: Any one that includes Colin Hanks, who breathes life into a lovelorn FBI agent.

Rating: R for some prolonged sequences of strong, gruesome violence, and language.

Movie review: 'Untraceable' unwatchable

  • Article by: Colin Covert
  • Star Tribune
  • January 24, 2008 - 4:54 PM

If the makers of "Untraceable" had paid attention to the script they were filming, they might have argued themselves out of making the movie. The story is an FBI procedural about agents on the trail of a serial killer who broadcasts the death throes of his victims on his website. The more viewers who click on to watch, the faster the subject dies. Naturally, the site becomes a huge hit, with thousands of voyeuristic observers becoming accomplices in the atrocities. Did no one notice that "Untraceable" reenacts its villain's crime, creating a pay-per-view torture chamber and enticing us to take a peek?

It would be good to shrug off this film as an unwatchable mess, but sadly it is the work of skilled actors and a proficient crew. It's technically polished, handsomely photographed and skillfully edited. Morally, however, "Untraceable" is indefensible. And that causes it to miss its mark. It aims to terrify, but it left me feeling just heavyhearted. Everyone working on the project is overqualified for the job; the cast is headed by Diane Lane, Colin Hanks and Mary Beth Hurt. Yet torture porn is all that Hollywood offers these talented entertainers.

Lane plays Jennifer Marsh of Portland, Ore., a federal agent and single mom to a young daughter. Jennifer's team, usually concerned with garden-variety cybercrime and identity theft, stumbles onto something more unusual and unsavory when they discover a kitten about to be zapped on a site titled KillWithMe. The agents laugh it off as an outrageous hoax until a struggling, gagged man is murdered on streaming video. The killer is operating in Portland, exact whereabouts unknown, picking off citizens seemingly at random. In fact, in an elaborate scheme that could have been drawn from an Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery, the killer is choosing targets linked by an event they would never suspect. As Jennifer's pursuit of the evasive killer heats up, he turns the tables, moving ever closer to Jennifer's colleague Griffin (Hanks), and even her daughter.

Director Gregory Hoblit knows how to build tension; he brought to the screen the sleek courtroom dramas "Primal Fear," which made a rising star of Edward Norton, and "Fracture," co-starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. Such is his command of film technique that even when a character does something absurd, Hoblit keeps you wrapped in the story's web. But this movie wasn't made to tell a story of suspense. The cornerstones of "Untraceable" -- its reasons for existing -- are protracted scenes of misery and mutilation. An acid bath, heat lamps and blood anticoagulant gradually snuff out agonized victims before KillWithMe's video cameras.

What professional polish is lavished on this parade of brutality. The film gives us artfully composed closeups of bloody flayed flesh, skin broiling and scorching, eyes bugging in torment. I'm sure the makers of the movie would call it a provocative condemnation of man's capacity for voyeurism and cruelty. I'm sure I wouldn't believe them. "Untraceable" is unethical, a tawdry serving of sadism in the guise of a morality tale. The script wags its finger at us -- accomplices once removed -- for enabling the murders. Let's take that message seriously and move on, lending our support to something more uplifting.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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