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Torture Porn for the Rest of Us

Directed by Gregory Hoblit (Fracture, Hart’s War, Frequency), Untraceable, a moralizing thriller centered on the hunt for a serial killer who broadcasts his kills over the internet, exploits (“exploits” is the operative word here) our fears and anxieties about living in a technology-driven society where privacy rights have given way to a surveillance state.

Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), an FBI agent with the Cyber-Crimes Unit in Portland, Oregon, works with her partner, Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks), to track down Internet fraudsters and sexual predators. Marsh works the late night shift so she can spend quality morning time with her daughter, Annie (Perla Haney-Jardine), and her mother, Stella (Mary Beth Hurt). The younger, single, Dowd trolls the Internet for blind dates.

One day Marsh and Dowd receive a tip to check out a site, The site asks viewers to first participate in the murder of a kitten by responding positively on a message board. Marsh and Dowd assume it’s a hoax until an unseen killer kidnaps, tortures, and murders a local man, Herbert Miller (Tim De Zarn), all of which is streamed on to the web, to the entertainment of millions.

Marsh and Dowd are then asked to participate in an inter-agency task force and work primarily with Eric Box (Billy Burke), a street-smart detective. Almost immediately another man is kidnapped, his torture and eventual death also streamed live on the web. With Marsh and Dowd incapable of tracking down the killer’s IP address (apparently he can switch IP addresses randomly), they’re forced to depend on an analog investigation, looking for clues and links between his victims before he strikes again. The killer’s plan, however, eventually pulls in Marsh, Dowd, and those close to them.

With a premise that “borrows” heavily from the recent spate of “torture porn” entries, e.g. the Saw franchise, Hostel I and II, where the “kill” or rather the long, painful road to the “kill” became the raison d'être for the sub-genre, Untraceable adds disingenuous moralizing into the mix from various characters, including the serial killer.

Hoblit and his screenwriters, Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, and Allison Burnett use torture as a central plot device while condemning the consumption of violent imagery in a culture where relative anonymity promotes perverted behavior. It’s a neat trick that only the cleverest of writers can achieve without appearing like they’re acting in bad faith. Unfortunately, Fyvolent, Brinker, and Burnett aren’t that clever.

As superficial, trite, and ludicrous as Untraceable is, however, it’s also a notch above other derivative genre entries thanks to Hoblit’s taut direction and Diane Lane’s compelling performance as the lead character. Without Lane as the strong-willed FBI agent tracing a serial killer while balancing the rigorous demands of single motherhood, Untraceable would have been nearly unwatchable. As it is, Lane has a strong supporting cast to add a professional veneer to the film, but ultimately, the cheaply manipulative, banal screenplay sinks Untraceable.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars