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Untraceable

The reviews, at Metacritic, score an awful 32, but if you scroll through the critics to the lay comments, you'll get a better feel for Untraceable, Gregory Holbit's Internet thriller. The professionals seem to be as bewildered by Untraceable as the film's FBI bureau chief is by its story, at least with regard to publicity. Steven Holden, of The New York Times, writes, "You may view Untraceable, as I do, as a repugnant example of the voyeurism it pretends to condemn." Metacritic rates his review as a 20 for the film, but I'd give it 0 for critical intelligence. Perhaps I've been jaded by visiting too many snuff sites, but I found Untraceable to be as tactful about the grisly bits as it could be without being coy. In any case, I went to see the movie and I had a great time. Beneath its cool superstructure of Internet legerdemain, Untraceable is a solidly old-fashioned chase picture, leaner and more efficient than most, and starring here's why I wanted to see it the great Diane Lane.

Diane Lane is that rare intelligent actress who makes me glad that I'm a man and eager to be a better one. She's the sort of woman who is drawn to you (if she is drawn to you) because you're interesting, not because you feed her ego with attention. She prefers your grappling with the problems of your line of work as best you can to your pining away on sonnets extolling her radiance, but she is not impervious to the apt gallantry. Altogether aware that God is not a male, she does not expect you to be a god. She gives me hope, but she also gives me terms. It's true that I'm projecting everything that I know about my lovely wife onto an actress whose face has stirred me ever since she was a little girl fourteen, anyway, in her first picture, A Little Romance and Ms Lane has never once struck the jarring note that would wake me from the spell.

In Untraceable, Diane Lane plays Jennifer Marsh, an FBI agent working in cyber-crime. The widow of a police detective in Portland, she has a gun and knows how to use it, but she does not deal with violent criminals in the course of her work. When she runs across an Internet fraudster, she calls in the constabulary, and they break the door down. She works nights so that she can sleep while her daughter is at school. She and her mother, Stella (Mary Beth Hurt), exchange a lot of meaningful glances, the gist of which seems to be that Jennifer had better make sure that she doesn't let her career crowd out her duty to be there as a parent.

In the middle of putting a pubescent identity thief away, Jennifer is tipped off to a disturbing site at which, it seems, a kitten has been tortured to death. As so often happens in good, old-fashioned movies, Jennifer is unable to communicate her alarm to her boss, Richard Brooks (Peter Lewis), so it is not until the site streams the image of a strung-up human being, with the site's name, killwithme.com, carved in his chest that resources are mobilized. Too late, alas: the victim is pumped full of anticoagulants until he bleeds to death, and not just from the blazoned letters. What makes Untraceable the interesting "problem" film that it is is the link between the anticoagulant drip and the site's traffic. As more people visit, the drip is increased. Popularity literally kills. The film's other two completed ordeals involve equally inventive and ghoulish modes of murder. In all three instances, however, the focus is not on the victim's suffering so much as it is on the whirring readouts that display the cascading number of hits, as word of mouth (and link) catches the Internet's attention. Untraceable takes pains to trace the connection between "human interest" and human misery.

As the deranged avenger (Joseph Cross) puts it to one of his sacrifices, nothing bad would happen if nobody cared to watch, and his point, if not his follow-through, is worth taking. We are a race of rubberneckers, and our first response to terrible news that doesn't involve us or ours is almost always one of curiosity. Young people, unacquainted with grief, are especially callow about the suffering of others, and our CGI world encourages the disingenuous belief that "it isn't really happening." Mr Holbit and his screenwriting team, Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, and Allison Burnett, serve up an understated foretaste of what's to come when Jennifer, caught in traffic, finds out from a handy service that she is caught in a "gaper's block" that won't last much longer because she has almost reached the scene of the accident. The survival value of hominid inquisitiveness is shown to be problematic at best.

Assisted by two FBI agents, Griffin (Colin Hanks) and Tim (Tyrone Giordano), and a detective who went through the academy with Jennifer's late husband, Eric (Billy Burke), Jennifer eventually traces the untraceable, but not without cost, and the climax of the film puts her in the situation of those silent screen heroines who were tied to the railroad tracks. Women have come a long way since those days, however, and Jennifer is able to demonstrate a trick or two that her captor hadn't thought of. At the very last moment, Jennifer is stretched out on the floor, flashing her badge defiantly at a Webcam; but before Mr Holbit is quite done, he shares an incoming message from a visitor to the site who wants to know how to download what has just been seen. On that disquieting note, the screen goes black.

Untraceable features a lot of cool-looking computer screens, as well as shots of hands hovering over keyboards and mice. Prepare, when you get home afterward and rush to look things up at IMDb, to feel more than a little freaked. (February 2008)

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