Diane Lane straps on the Clarice Starling stuff as Jennifer Marsh, special agent in the FBI cyber-crime unit in Portland, Oregon. Alerted to the Web site killwithme.com by an anonymous tipster, Marsh and her geeky sidekick Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks) watch in horror as some online nutjob tortures and kills Lulu the cat. "This is just the beginning!" notes our prophetic heroine, and so it shall be — for B-thriller boilerplate ("My guess? None of it's random!") among other unpleasantries.
Enter Eric Box (Billy Burke), generic fox, a homicide detective packing bedroom eyes and penetrating existential queries. "When did the world go so fucking insane?" he wonders, as the Internet killer upgrades his crazy on human prey. Propped upright before a webcam, bleeding from deep incisions spelling "Want to kill with me?" across his chest, the latest victim is plugged into an anti-coagulant IV drip synched to a page-hit counter. The more people that watch, the quicker the drip goes; the quicker the drip, the faster he dies. His life, you see, depends entirely on...you! You as in YouTube, Time Magazine person-of-the-year you, sadistic, voyeuristic, media-addled you. Hella subversive, no? Can't stop watching, can you? Feeling just a wee bit implicated, hmm?
Untraceable connects its pay-(with your life)-per-view conceit to one legitimate, if fleeting moment of dread in the queasy spectacle of the cyber-crimes crew gathered around a massive video projection of the snuff scenario in progress. They helplessly watch as the page-hit counter shoots into the millions — some dozen or more of those hits generated on their own computers. Were Untraceable invested in ethical conundrums rather than pop-psych high concept — motored by human interest and not exploitation apparatus — this grim, immobilized tableau might have dropped a proper mindfuck.
Of course, pulling that off would require acknowledgement of mind, and Untraceable grants no deeper sentience than crawling skin and mild nausea. Next up on killwithme: Some poor chap gets hogtied to a battery of heat lamps (much relishing of grotesque blister f/x here); another gets dunked in a tank of water slowly mixed with acid (there will be blood, and more attention is paid to the verisimilitude of peeling flesh than the character suffering the peel). Untraceable being a movie about the effect of violence in the media, or whatever, each new murder scenario wraps quicker than the last, as hordes of new viewers log on to gawk at torture and snark it up on the message board. Damn you, media! Damn you, you!
Meanwhile, the mastermind of this elaborate nastiness, a disgruntled twerp named Owen (Joseph Cross), gloats in his basement lair amid batteries of computer equipment and the requisite flickering fluorescents, cork-board collages, and canned-fetus art installations of the contemporary cinematic serial killer. In addition to his gift for diabolical multimedia, Owen is distinguished by his major daddy issues, though I leave you to discover the precise inspiration for his repellent online project. Suffice to say, it involves...well, you get the "idea" by now.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit from a screenplay by a trio (a trio!) of whomevers, Untraceable hasn't the brains of a class-act psychothriller like The Silence of the Lambs (though it does reprise that film's titillating homophobia); worse yet, it lacks the balls to juice up the trashy verve of the Saw series. Stuck in the middle, it leaves everyone stranded, actors and audience alike. Lane, poor thing, acts the pro, cool and confident, keeping as dry as she can in this sad, soggy affair — speaking of which, I know it's set in the Pacific Northwest and everything, but yo, Hoblit, it doesn't rain this much in the Amazon, and it isn't this dark on the dark side of the moon.