If there's anything that "Untraceable," the new serial killer thriller starring Diane Lane, proves it's that man cannot live by torture and death traps alone. Ever since the success of "Saw" and "Hostel" the horror genre has been overrun with films that seek to triumph by offering the most creative and gruesome killings imaginable. With "Untraceable" we see very clearly why some of these films work and others do not.
"Untraceable" has a single ace in its corner: its premise. It really is a clever idea that must've really went over well in Hollywood pitch sessions. The killer in "Untraceable" has a unique method of offing his victims. He is the webmaster of www.killwithme.com. He abducts people and then sets them up in various slow-death contraptions. As more people visit the website the mechanism that kills the victim accelerates.
Initially up against the hacker serial killer are cyber crimes specialists Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) and Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks, Tom's son.) As the situation worsens the FBI steps in to assist them with Detective Eric Box (Billy Burke) teaming with Marsh and Dowd. Of course the killer gradually starts targeting his investigators, going after Marsh so far as to hack into her car (she has one of those GPS guidance systems.) Also, of course, the team begins piecing together the clues to determine that the killer is not just randomly targeting people. He has an agenda and a master plan.
Unfortunately, when we discover just what the killer's motivations are and who he is it's a monumental letdown. It's an accepted truism in not only film but virtually all storytelling that a hero is only as interesting as his villain. Horror films are notorious for many things but one in particular worth highlighting is that they're not known for their heroes. It's always the villains that carry the story.
"Untraceable" is no different. Marsh, Dowd and Box are as generic and forgettable as movie characters can be. The film needed a sinister, amazing villain. That's why the "Saw" films - even when they start to drift astray with the third and fourth - manage to work. Tobin Bell's Jigsaw is an entertaining, compelling, ultra-cool villain. With "Hostel" the whole Elite Hunting concept is sufficiently threatening. Even going back to the films that really fathered the serial killer horror genre - "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Se7en" - the brilliant murderer makes an indelible mark upon cinema. When everything's laid out the killer can only be described as a whiny, pathetic wimp. You just want to smack him and say "Get over it!"
With "Untraceable" there's really nothing there. Throughout the film I found myself glancing around the theatre, somewhat bored, considering walking out. All it has are its clever concept and three really rather mediocre deathtraps. Of the killings only one of them really struck me as particularly horrific and original. And don't even bother with the film's supposed "social commentary" about the issues of disturbing online videos and the moral implications of internet users participating in murder. None of it is ever really explored as thoroughly or thoughtfully as necessary to generate any ideas of merit.
I actually found the most interesting parts of the film to be the beginning in which Marsh and Dowd do their normal, real life job of busting cyber criminals. It seems like that might actually have the potential for a much more interesting, unique thriller, or perhaps a documentary. There are plenty of great, entertaining films to be made from the culture and realities of the internet. So far it's been a fairly untapped territory in cinema. It's a shame that one of the first films to go into this potentially rich realm is one so poorly executed.