1. It takes advantage of defenseless January moviegoers. I refer to those loyal souls who have assiduously seen all the late-year releases that are now bathing in Oscar-nominated glory, and are looking for a weekend diversion that doesn't involve the Rambonctious Sly Stallone. They see Diane Lane's name on a movie called Untraceable and think it might be a thriller for adults, an Unfaithful with a little murder on the side. What they'll get is Saw 4-1/2, another slice of movie gorenography, this time with the patina of social comment.
Lane plays Jennifer Marsh, an FBI agent in Portland, Ore., who tracks cybercrime: mostly identity theft and porn downloads. A new site is different: the work of a sickie who shows a kitten on the screen, then, shortly thereafter, one dead kitty. This guy is smart, deranged and, even with all the resources at Marsh's command, untraceable.
Even for a January splatter-fest movie, Unpraiseable is spectacularly stupid. Toward the end, the killer knows Agent Marsh's identity and is out to seize, fricassee and kill her. So her boss takes her off the case and tells her, in effect, get out of here; we won't have any cops guard you when you go through the rain, at night, alone and unprotected, to the creepy motel room you've moved into. Apparently, Marsh has an electric car, because when she drives onto a bridge where there are no drivers to help her the killer is able to make it stop through remote control.
2. It plays into the sick myth of the brilliant serial killer. The evil genius with a sadistic streak, who plays mind games with his victims and the police, has replaced the criminal mastermind of old dime novels. Instead of tying the heroine to the railroad tracks (these days, the train would never arrive), he straps them into Rube Goldberg contraptions that slowly rip their fingernails off and tear their dignity to shreds. We live in a cruel world, but this is one area of criminality where fiction has long outstripped fact. According to the folks at Wikipedia and those obsessive list-makers have to be trusted here there have been 93 U.S. serial killers. Movies and novels topped that number ages ago, merrily tapping into, or creating, the audience's fascination with diseased minds and the atrocities they can dream up.
Lately, virtually all serial killers are derivative of Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter series and its spawn, the Saw films, where the killer is (1) gloriously nuts and (2) convinced he is wreaking divine vengeance on his victims. He's meant to be pitied as much as reviled. In Unfaceable the killer revealed fairly early in the proceedings, so I'm not spoiling much is a young man (played by Joseph Cross) bereft over his father's suicide, and driven to punish those he believes responsible. Don't blame me, blame society. Sadly, this sympathy-for-the-devil tone permeates modern psychiatry: it says that every kink can be traced to some genetic mistake or childhood trauma. Can't anyone, in fiction or real life, just be a bad person?
3. It exploits the sickness it supposedly condemns. The killer's notion is to kidnap someone, truss him up in a basement in front of a video camera, and post the torture on his Internet site. The more people who log on to watch the agony, the more the victim is tortured, unto death. This allows the perp to think he's not the one killing his victims; it's the viewers, those sick voyeurs glued to their screens. They are voting for the victim's painful death simply by watching, in a sort of American Idol for sadists. The site is called killwithme.com. Go on, click away; I'll wait.
Hi, welcome back. You saw the warning: "Visiting this site could cause harm to innocent people. Do you still want to enter?" You said yes, and saw this: "91% of you ignored the warning. Where are your morals?" This is, of course, a site devised by Screen Gems, the Sony subsidiary that produced Vacancy, When a Stranger Calls and sequels to Hostel, 8mm, Sniper, Resident Evil and I Know What You Did Last Summer. So Sick is pretty much the in-house genre, and the superior moral tone of Intractable is just another twisted prank. The movie says we're all rotten and weak for watching the very form of lurid stuff it put on the screen. But the people behind the film won't take responsibility for their artistic crimes. They say they're not culpable for manufacturing and marketing this trash. No, we are for paying to see it.
4. It stains the C.V.s of some fairly honorable movie people. The director is Gregory Hoblit, who helped dream up the distinctive visual styles of the TV shows Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, and directed the not-bad crazy-killer thriller Primal Fear (which introduced Edward Norton to film audiences). Two of the writers, Robert Fyvolent and Mark R. Brinker, are first-timers, but the rewrite man (or in this case woman), Allison Burnett, scripted last year's saucy, amiable Robert Benton movie Feast of Love. I know a buck is a buck, if not nearly a Euro, but I can't imagine what lured them to lend their talents to this enterprise.
Our condolences to some fine actors. Colin Hanks, Tom's very promising son, does decent work as one of the FBI agents, but like so many other characters in the movie, he has to play his last scenes tethered in torture. And we will not forgive Lastplaceable for making Lane at 43 a near-30-year veteran of movies and a fine natural actress who, I wrote not long ago, "has never had an ungorgeous day in her screen life" look run-down, worn-out and generally kind of awful, even when she's not hanging upside down above a threshing machine. Finally, the movie turns Portland into a gray, soggy monsoon city. I checked the city's official website and read: "Our average annual rainfall is less than that of Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, Indianapolis or Seattle." Maybe everyone who logs onto the site makes it pour more.
5. It makes critics like me go shrill with condemnation. For movie distributors, January is garage-sale, or garbage-sale, time; reviewers' critical expectations are lower than usual. We're indulgent toward junk that deserves to go direct to DVD. We want to save our fulminations for later in the year, and unleash them on failed films with bigger budgets and higher ambitions. But Untraceable really is disgraceable. It's bad enough when a movie offers up atrocity scenes that would make the Nanking soldiers seem like Hannah Montana; it's repellent when the movie dresses up the sadism in a moral message that condemns the very weakness it is exploiting.
Can we resolve to take a break from gorenograohy? For now, enough of torture porn. It's time for tort-reform.