Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unwatchable? Almost, but not quite...

While keeping vampire hours for the feds’ cyber-crime division, Portland, Oregon single mom Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) discovers, a locally-authored site rigged up in such as way that as viewership increases so does the rate at which a captive, onscreen victim’s torture hurries him toward miserable death. The first victim’s just a kitty, but Jennifer, unlike her dismissive superiors, smartly deduces that this is only the beginning.

Next in line is a hockey dad being slowly dosed with anti-coagulant, soon to be followed by a handsome broadcaster, hands and feet locked in cement, trapped under heat lamps that cook him alive as worldwide death porn junkies turn up the heat. Who will be next? And for the love of god why does the scumbag do it? And hey, look at those numbers logging on to witness the torment –doesn’t that mean we’re all somehow accountable?

Director Gregory Hoblit, who most recently helmed Fracture, has a soft spot for one of the most tiresome Hollywood tropes: the murderous genius. With Untraceable, Hoblit’s trio of scribes supply him with an evil mastermind that, while only 20 and afflicted with what would seem considerable emotional retardation, is clearly a prodigy of chemistry, communications, structural engineering and even carpentry. Instead of feeding YouTube with sleaze, this kid should be working for the space program. Jennifer meanwhile is marked as our hero because, despite her interweb expertise, her whole life is decidedly anti-tech: her butch live-in mom’s into extreme gardening, her little girl just wants to ride her bike, and Jennifer’s choice for a kiddie birthday party is a roller rink complete with live organ music.

Especially once we get past the mid-point hump, Untraceable just gets stupider and stupider, right up until the sad, risible final shot that reads like an ad for the long arm of the FBI (don’t even think about pirating this movie). Yet it should be said that, its failures in cinematic storytelling aside, the film is an interesting barometer of the times, an age where technology has made morbid voyeurism completely anonymous, comfortable and safe, facilitating our ability to participate in the suffering of others by rendering it utterly abstract. It also indirectly –okay, clumsily– questions the varying degrees to which we tacitly participate in suffering and torture, ie: voting for an administration that contrives wars that, perhaps inevitably, lead to torture.

Undoubtedly, Untraceable’s problems lie not in any lack of meaty themes to play with. Yet the horror of torture by anonymous remote control has already been mined far more elegantly and confrontationally in Olivier Assayas’ woefully underrated 2002 film demonlover. And it’s a shame then that, thanks to sheer advertising dollars, more people will have seen Untraceable in its opening weekend than probably saw demonlover during its entire theatrical run.

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