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Death is the New Sex

Public culpability gets credit for torture


Untraceable (R)

Directed by Gregory Hoblit

Stars Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks

Opens Friday check listings

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 Web site——where a murderer tortures victims at a rate consistent with the number of visitors to the site. 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. The anonymous killer (Joseph Cross, Running With Scissors) places a kitten in front of a sticky rat trap that will ensnare the feline, and Web viewers can 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, Ore., where her own mother (Mary Beth Hurt) is a fixture. At work, Marsh nails identity thieves and pedophiles against whom she can call in surgical police strikes 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 to publicize the situation for fear that it will accelerate the man's death. But their concerns are quickly cancelled when a huge number of Web hits prompt the inescapable fate.

Marsh's right-hand cyber crimes partner Griffin Dowd (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 Web cam killing that involves the use of sunlamps. The picture takes on the tone of the Saw franchise in which the mechanical method of ensuring 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 guarantee 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 media's responsibility in relation to our resident psycho's motives.

Untraceable provokes discussion over the way snuff films were thought to be the stuff of myth even just a few years ago, but are now widely available to any adventurous Web surfer who 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 media exploitation 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.