Let it never be said that Hollywood only churns out movies with liberal messages. Untraceable is rabidly, pathologically conservative, coming out swinging against the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, technology, net neutrality, online dating (!), and all restrictions on law enforcement. Its thesis is that the internet is full of depraved, bloodthirsty maniacs who should be tracked down, arrested, and possibly executed. It is outraged by the notion of online anonymity, and anything else that may make it harder for the FBI to find you. The only scary thing about Untraceable is the kind of world it envisions in the stead of the den of sin it thinks we inhabit.
Nominally, this is a story about a serial killer who rigs his victims to a torture device in front of a camera, streams the footage to the internet, and rigs it such that the more people watch the faster they die. After him are a pair of FBI cybercrime specialists (Diane Lane and Colin Hanks) and a police detective who is one of the most boring characters in cinema history (Billy Burke). One of the stops on their trail, for reasons too irrelevant to detail here, is the home of a creepy dude whose basement is full of pornography, sex toys, and other unseemly paraphernalia. All our heroes can think to do is book him for burning his own copies of movies. It turns out that the guy has nothing to do with the murders our heroes are trying to solve — but, says the detective triumphantly, “it still felt good arresting him.” Because he’s one of those internet pervs, I guess, trolling the internet for porn.
When the culprit is found, it turns out that he is killing to prove a point — that people on the internet are willing, even eager, to watch people be brutally murdered. Soon, he says, we’ll be seeing executions on network television. For the FBI, he has this shocking accusation: “You let people say and do almost anything they want, and it doesn’t matter who it hurts.”
Needless to say, I think Untraceable‘s knee-jerk moralizing is reprehensible and stupid. For one thing, its premises are wrong. There aren’t actually millions of Americans on the internet clamoring to watch real people slowly killed. Those who decide to use online dating sites are probably not going to get trapped and killed by a maniac if they’re even remotely careful. Not everyone who watches pornography is a menace. The movie doesn’t constitute commentary on anything resembling our society. And the solutions it proposes to the problems it invents are cowardly.
Much could have been forgiven had director Gregory Hoblit, responsible for last year’s terrific Fracture, fashioned a clever and engaging thriller. But the bland police procedural it offers is hardly exciting stuff. Hypocritically, it depicts its murders in lurid, faux-gritty detail. (Smarter films [e.g. Vacancy] have managed to give the people what they want while asking why they want it, but Untraceable is not remotely on that level.) The solution to the mystery is arbitrary, and the film gives away the game way too early; there are no surprises after the halfway point. There’s no trashy fun to be had here.
The fact that this is being interpreted as an innocent genre flick is puzzling, since its agenda is as clear as it is bizarre. Differing worldviews are fine — the fact that I didn’t share all of the political sentiments in There Will Be Blood, for example, didn’t make it any less of a masterpiece — but Untraceable is just dimwitted. Boring, too.