Public Culpability Gets Credit for Torture

Maui Time | January 20, 2008
<\2008 gets its first installment of torture porn with a predictable thriller that blames a bloodthirsty public and big media for fostering an atmosphere of retribution violence. Diane Lane gives a solid performance as FBI cyber crimes Special Agent Jennifer Marsh who discovers an untraceable website ( where a murderer tortures victims at a rate constant with its number of visitors. The unwritten subtext of the gory torture scenes is that the horrific murders pale in comparison to the punishments doled out daily by American military at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prison camps. So long as the American government continues to torture people, it seems we will continue to see horror thrillers like Untraceable arrive in cinemas at a steady clip.

Written by a committee of Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinker, and Allison Burnett, Untraceable starts with a darkly humorous jab. Our anonymous killer (Joseph Cross -- Running With Scissors) sits a kitten in front of a sticky rat trap that will ensnare the feline for web viewers to witness its gradual demise. It's a back-handedly-benevolent comic narrative gesture that eases the audience into the gruesome torture and violent visual images yet to come.

Jennifer Marsh is a widowed single mother living in a modest house in Portland, Oregon where her own mother (Mary Beth Hurt) is a fixture. At work, Jennifer nails identity thieves and pedophiles that she can call in surgical police strikes against quicker than she can go out for a coffee. As such, her prescient leap of logic about a kitten killer's inevitable aptitude for torturing people to death comes too quickly to allow for much suspense to build before the first human victim makes his appearance. A taser gun becomes cinema's modern-day chloroform when a man is abducted in a sports arena parking lot before being stripped, cut, and shackled in front of a webcam with an intravenous needle that speeds bleeding with every new visitor that logs on. Some clever satire attends a discussion among FBI staffers over whether or not to publicize the situation for fear that it will accelerate the man's death. But their concerns are quickly canceled when a huge number of web hits prompt the inescapable fate.

Jennifer's right-hand cyber crimes partner Griffith (well played by Colin Hanks) makes a foreshadowing observation that if only the victim had been a boy scout he could have blinked out his location to the camera with Morse code. It's enough to send viewers on a personal quest to learn the alphabet of dots and dashes should a need ever arise.

Director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear) ramps up the tension with the second webcam killing that involves the use of sunlamps. The picture takes on the tone of a Saw franchise slasher pic where the mechanical method of insuring a grisly death takes on as much importance as the incident itself. And yet, the keystone of the plot rests on the visually shocking suicide of a college professor who combines a well-placed gunshot with a bridge fall to insure his desired result. A helicopter films the graphic sequence before disseminating it to the public on local television. Here the filmmakers outdo themselves with a disturbingly real vision of expiration by suicide that is shown repeatedly to underscore the responsibility of the media to the motives of our resident psycho.

Untraceable provokes discussion over the way snuff films were thought to be the stuff of myths even just a few years ago, but are now widely available to any adventurous web surfer that wants to watch someone being killed. It ultimately fails as a thriller because the script is so anxious to make some oblique point about the power of the web and exploitation media that it forgets about Jennifer's underdeveloped psychological journey. There aren't enough layers of visual meanings for the plot to add up emotionally. What you see is what you get, and as the famous quote about pornography goes, "you know it when you see it." Death is the new sex in American cinema.

Rated R, 100 mins. (C+)

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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