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Movie Review

Oh, what a tangled web we weave. Especially on the World Wide Web.

"It's a jungle in there," says Griffin Dowd, part of the FBI's Cyber Crimes Task Force in Portland, Ore. He and fellow agent Jennifer Marsh spend their nights busting identity thieves and pedophiles online, tracking their every keystroke as the crooks download other people's passwords and solicit babysitters in chat rooms.

But the online jungle they've been exploring and charting is nothing compared to the heart of darkness they're about to enter. Jennifer and Griffin are given a tip regarding a new, disturbing Web site, and they watch the site stream live video of a kitten, ensnared on a sticky rat trap, slowly starve to death. Jennifer tries to shut the site down, but it keeps rerouting itself.

Never mind, Jennifer's boss tells her. It's just a cat. You've got bigger fish to fry. But the site becomes exponentially more disturbing when, a week later, it showcases another victim—this time a man with the site's domain name carved into his chest. It seems as though the man's tormentor is pushing anticoagulants into his body, keeping the wound from clotting. The more people visit the site, the more anticoagulants the guy gets. In other words, the more curious people tune in, the faster the man bleeds to death.

And more people are watching. The site has gone viral.

"Don't call them fans," Jennifer says of the people checking out the site. "They're accomplices."


Positive Elements

Jennifer is a loving, single mom who lives with her own mother and 9-year-old daughter. Her husband apparently died some time ago, and Jennifer now works the FBI's Internet night beat so she can spend her daylight hours with her daughter. When her supervisor orders Jennifer to become point person for the new investigation—a highly time-consuming feather in her cap—she balks. But her boss insists. And even though the work begins taking more and more of her time, she does her best to be there for her daughter, throwing her a birthday party at the local roller rink and always putting on a smile.

Jennifer's relationship with her daughter is the most human element in this starkly inhumane film. Yet Untraceable, as unpleasant as it is, accurately accosts humanity's darkest impulses. This is a film that expects the worst of human nature in a way that's unintentionally and frighteningly biblical: We are a fallen people, the Bible tells us—"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" reads Jeremiah 17:9 in the King James Version—and this movie unflinchingly shows the consequent darkness that, in varying degrees, lurks in us all.

Spiritual Content

Just because a film points out why we all so very much need God doesn't mean it includes God. And He is largely absent in Untraceable, though we do hear that one of the killer's victims went to "church every Sunday."

Sexual Content

Audiences catch a fleeting glimpse of pornographic images on a computer screen in Jennifer's office. One of the killer's "fans" also has a fetish for online gay erotica. The stairway down to his basement is wallpapered with small cutouts of men in various states of undress. When Jennifer and Griffin track down an identity thief, Jennifer mentions he has a penchant for "high-end tech and low-end porn." Griffin says that she shouldn't jump to conclusions that the perp is a man. "If it's a woman, she could be my soul mate," he quips.

The Web site's male victims are shirtless during their tortures and deaths, and there are peripheral allusions to bondage and sadism.

Violent Content

This is a profoundly violent and disturbing film, and the best way to outline just how violent and disturbing it is is to tally (briefly) what happens—onscreen—to the killer's captives:

Victim 1 is chained to an upright bedspring, the Web site's domain carved across his chest. He's gagged, and blood seeps out of his mouth, staining the cloth. Cameras—both the Web cam and the movie cam—linger on him, showcasing his growing agony.

Victim 2 spends his last hours in a vat of concrete, his legs and hands trapped in the stuff. Heat lamps are trained on him, and the more people who "hit" the Web site, the more heat lamps go up. He's literally cooked alive, his skin a mass of huge, bloody blisters.

Victim 3 is tied up in a clear vat of water, which reaches his neck. A police badge has been pinned to his bare chest. A device pumps hydrochloric acid into the vat, which eats away the man's flesh. We see the water turn bloody and ribbons of skin strip off his arm.

Victim 4 hangs upside down over a running, gas-powered rototiller. The killer's device is designed to drop this unfortunate soul closer and closer to the whirling machine as more and more people tune in.

In the midst of all this, audiences sometimes see chat-like Web postings alongside the streaming footage. "Good riddance," says one, after the third victim dies. "1 cat, 3 dudes," says another. "Time for babes?"

Moviegoers are also asked to watch grainy, newsreel footage of a man shooting himself in the head, opening a huge cavity in his skull. The man then tumbles from a bridge, falling horrifically onto a parked car. Someone gets shot about a dozen times. The killer tasers his victims before dragging them down to his basement. And we're given glimpses of grainy, online film clips featuring others who have apparently met their ends.

It's intimated that the killer may be planning to abduct and kill Jennifer's daughter. Live footage of Jennifer's house is displayed on the Web site, with the daughter waving to the camera.

Crude or Profane Language

There are about a dozen f-words, another eight or so s-words and multiple misuses of God's name, including a couple tied to "d--n." There are likely more obscenities and profanities that I missed while screening this film: Some of the chat posts are obscene, and I was only able to document a few of them.

Drug and Alcohol Content

The killer sometimes pumps drugs into his victims.

Other Negative Elements


It's tempting to write off Untraceable as incongruously highbrow torture porn—Saw with more sympathetic characters, a coherent plot and one certified star (Diane Lane). But that would be too easy, a bit unfair and, in a sense, too generous. Saw films swim through rivers of blood, but they hope audiences will turn a collective blind eye to the real horror of the genre. Untraceable doesn't want you to look away. It wants you to see.

"The whole world wants to watch you die and they don't even know you," says the killer to one of his victims.

The killer isn't Untraceable's only villain. The film's real ire is reserved for the voyeurs, folks not so different from you and me. We get a sense of their minds by reading their postings: A few are apparently shocked by what they see (but seem to be watching anyway). Others relish the show. The very last message we see onscreen reads, "How can I download this video?"

There really is a site on the World Wide Web with the same address as the one used in this film. (You won't get it from me.) It's a facsimile of the site we see onscreen—designed, obviously, by the film's makers. Pressing the "Enter" button brings up a warning that reads, "Visiting this site could cause harm to innocent people. Do you still want to enter?" Click "yes," and you're told, "91% of you ignored the warning. Where are your morals?"

Where indeed. In an age when would-be killers post their intentions on YouTube, where voyeurs download clips of Saddam Hussein's hanging or journalist David Berg's beheading, where are our morals? How many of us have viewed a disturbing, even horrific, online clip when we know better? How many of us would, just out of curiosity, take a "quick glance" at such a site? What does that say about us? I have no doubt the premise of Untraceable is true—or at least lurks around the edges of the truth. If such a site existed, it would indeed become viral, attracting more and more curious onlookers even as its designer killed his victims faster. Most visitors would go once: It would be enough. Some would visit again and again and again.

It was telling, I think, that a couple of people in the audience I was part of laughed when the cat was shown caught on the sticky rat trap. For some, depictions of pain, even death, are entertainment. And this film condemns that point of view without question, without hesitation. "You form yourself by what you say no to," Diane Lane told fearnet.com. "Boundaries create the person, and mine are very high when it comes to the Internet."

But by its own ethos, then, Untraceable condemns itself.

It wallows in blood even as it denounces those who watch it. It lingers on scenes of incredible brutality—yes, to make us feel the horror, but also in an attempt to "entertain" us. Most audiences will be rightly horrified by what they see on the screen, suppressing nausea to choke down another handful of popcorn. And they'll cheer when the killer meets his own bloody end. More than a few will wish the killer's end could've been bloodier, more brutal—on a par with the suffering he dealt out to others.

Where are our morals? What does it say about us when it takes a bloody, voyeuristic movie to tell us that our penchant for bloody voyeurism is wrong?

You form yourself by what you say no to, Lane says. She's absolutely right. So if we already understand and believe this film's intended message, we must say no to it.

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Objectionable Content

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Plot Summary

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