Running Time 101 minutes
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Written by Robert Fyvolent & Mark Brinker and Allison Burnett
Starring Diane Lane, Colin Hanks and Joseph Cross
Starting off the new year with the kind of thriller that keeps you out of dark alleys after midnight and makes you long for eyes in the back of your head, Untraceable does its job with goose bumps to spare. For a familiar element that always works in Hollywood thrillers, try the one about beautiful, tough single girls on the right side of the law, usually with children and mothers, pitting their skills against the diseased genius of wackos on the wrong side of the law who are always one step ahead of them. It helps when the good girl is as lovely and clever as Diane Lane and the bad guy is as unlikely a villain as the preppy, collegiate technology geek in Untraceable, played so well by Joseph Cross, whose reputation for fresh spins on unconventional characters was firmly established by this role as Augusten Burroughs in Running With Scissors. Untraceable has flaws, but this cat-and-mouse team is so hypnotic that all you do is sit there waiting while they deliver one big shock after another.
The movie centers on the new technology division within the FBI that investigates and prosecutes criminals on the Internet. There’s a world of virtual crime out there today, replacing the old bank holdups and breeding a new kind of über-fiend specializing in child pornography, credit-card fraud and identity theft; Diane Lane plays one of the techies who tries to trace them. Special Agent Jennifer Marsh works in a room at F.B.I. headquarters in Washington, D.C., full of computer screens, monitors and sophisticated gadgets, speaking in Internet jabberwocky even her bosses don’t understand, but she can spot an innocent order to download music and smell a plot to steal your financial information faster than you can say “MasterCard.” One day she and her close friend and fellow agent Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks, son of Tom) come across a Web site called killwithme.com that fries their eyeballs: a homicidal maniac weaned on the Saw franchise has set up shop, showcasing unspeakable tortures, cruelties and killings while the public logs in like shoppers cruising for free food stamps. It’s obvious that the director, Gregory Hoblit, who made one of my favorite intellectual thrillers, Primal Fear, is onto something about how law enforcement solves Internet crime and the full extent to which lunatics use technology to exploit horror. “It’s a jungle in there,” someone says. And Untraceable proves it.
Still, it’s the inventive ways this monster dreams up to shred his victims to hamburger that kept me focused; with the new technology, a disturbed teen prodigy of abnormal psychology can become another Hannibal Lecter, the police can become the murder weapons and the curious who log in turn into accomplices. And there are plenty of them—couch potatoes, disillusioned welfare recipients, disenchanted war veterans, antisocial shut-ins fed up with hopeless despair, the homeless and disenfranchised mired in government red tape; the growing list of potential nutburgers who no longer know how to be part of normal society but live with faces glued to computer terminals is bottomless. The killer in Untraceable has watched so many replays of the World Trade Center on 9/11, people beheaded in Iraq, and children plundered by pedophiles that he no longer lives by rules or definitions of insanity. The baby-faced monster who calls himself Owen (played by Joseph Cross, still a real-life college student at Trinity College in Connecticut) turns to international fame for an answer. The more hits he gets on his Web site, the faster his captives die. And when Special Agents Marsh and Dowd become his next targets, the movie can hardly keep from tripping over itself to accelerate the need for oxygen.
A few caveats from a viewer who is always pestered by the absence of logic: Why would the exhausted agent, after a hard day watching screaming victims lowered into vats of sizzling hydrochloric acid, call to her daughter from the bathroom to watch whatever she wants on a personal computer, where all the horror footage is stored? If she’s such a stickler for details, why does she pooh-pooh the child’s report of a man photographing the bedroom window? Knowing the killer has tracked her down on a deserted bridge, why would she return to her car in a blinding rainstorm to peek through the window? Ah, the movies. Still, I extend praise to director Hoblit, who really knows where to place a camera for maximum creep appeal; and to the fearless Diane Lane, who strips herself of every smidge of glamour, female foundation support and makeup to look as haggard as possible. You won’t know this is the same girl who dazzled Richard Gere in Unfaithful. There’s excellent support by Billy Burke as a handsome cop who chips in, and it’s nice to see Mary Beth Hurt again, as Ms. Lane’s mother. The pacing, atmosphere and technical design are impeccable. But Untraceable leaves a stain on the brain. Unnerving is the only word to describe the film’s awareness of the diabolical power of predators on computers everywhere from bedroom to schoolroom served by an intricate web of servers and hosts that make them … untraceable.