In my hometown of Portland, Ore., there's the notion that, after native son Gus Van Sant stopped making movies locally (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), the city became cursed, doomed to produce one Hollywood failure after another. From Madonna's Body of Evidence to Mr. Holland's Opus to Kevin Costner's recent serial-killer stab in Mr. Brooks, the parade of critical and box office flops just kept coming.
Diane Lane's cyber-thriller Untraceable shows us that Portland's celluloid woes are not over. But don't take our word for it: A disgruntled woman at last week's promo screening walked out mid-film, disgustedly declaring, "It's just one torture scene after another."
That's a fair assessment, but not completely accurate. There's also plenty of dull dialogue, thinly sketched characters and incomprehensible computer jargon. As if that weren't bad enough, Untraceable even inserts a cynical aside against net neutrality, insinuating that the ability to access websites equally is some kind of threat to our personal safety. One suspects an opportunistic cable exec joining the committee of screenwriters who concocted the script.
The facts are these: Portland-based FBI cyber crimes agent (and single mom) Jennifer Marsh (Lane) stumbles across an untraceable Web site called "killwithme.com," where a murderer tortures to death his victims at a rate that's determined by the number of visitors. The more traffic the site gets, the quicker the victim dies. Needless to say, the villain's an evil genius with a moral beef. You don't have to be Joe Bob Briggs to predict that Lane's family and friends end up in his crosshairs.
The film's early going shows promise as its somber high-tech suspense unspools at a leisurely pace. Unfortunately, things quickly descend into a sordid paint-by-numbers thriller that increasingly requires Lane's character to forget her FBI training and make one moronic decision after another. (Isn't checking the back seat of your car the first lecture of Crime Fighting 101?)
It's a shame really, because Untraceable's central conceit has an intriguing and relevant moral thesis: that the Internet has fed our insatiable taste for voyeurism, disconnecting its users from the real-life implications of their actions. While it doesn't take much effort to dredge up videos of Daniel Pearl's execution (or any of a hundred other depraved acts of violence), it is an undeniable reflection of our character as to why we do it.
Director Gregory Hoblit (Fallen, Primal Fear) and his screenwriters had a terrific opportunity to produce an incisive and unsettling film that left viewers shaken by their potential culpability. But, as in all things, the devil's in the details and execution is everything. Instead of a thriller that delivers an ethical knockout punch like Se7en, Untraceable's audiences are treated to a second-rate serial-killer show with an ending so preposterously asinine the only appropriate response is a derisive snort.
Worse, the film's sanctimonious murderer is a hypocrite, using his Web-based murders to exploit the very behaviors he supposedly loathes. Untraceable is similarly two-faced, righteously railing against our penchant for virtual rubbernecking while it presents an increasingly ghoulish set of death traps and grisly torture porn.
January has long been recognized as Hollywood's month of castoffs and misfires, hence the half-witted horrors, malnourished comedies and thrill-less thrillers that wash up in multiplexes like so many decayed corpses. Untraceable is no exception. Though it clearly believes it's another Saw or Se7en, Hoblit's movie just plain sucks.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.