Are there many true original ideas left in the crime movie / serial killer genre? With the success of films such as Silence of the Lambs and Se7en not to mention the myriad CSI series on TV - it must be very difficult to come up with a concept that has not been seen before. If, however, you feel you must tread old ground then you really need to cover it in an original way.
Untraceable does indeed have a novel premise behind it. People are being murdered in particularly gruesome ways. The twist here is that it is being done on the internet. Someone has set a site up called Kill With Me. On the site, victims are killed according to how many people log on to the site. The more people who watch, the quicker the victim dies. The site is hosted via a Russian domain and spoofs unsecure servers to host its material making the site almost untraceable.
The site is brought to the attention of a cybercrime unit headed by Starling-light character Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane). Her assistant Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks) assists her with everyday trawls through the perversity that exists on the information super-highway. Nothing they have encountered prepares them for what they now finding themselves dealing with. What follows is a race against time as they try and track down the perpetrator, arrest him, and get the site closed down.
Unfortunately, the killer (Joseph Cross) is aware of exactly who is tracking him and the game becomes more and more personal as the killer remains frustratingly just ahead of the investigation unit.
The central concept of this film - the broadcasting of the murders live on the web is undeniably original, but the main trouble with this film is that nothing else is. The influence of so many other films appears here that it is so difficult to provide Untraceable with any sense of its own identity. The killer disposes his victims in ever more elaborate ways, very much like the killer in the SAW series. As already mentioned, the central character is very much a rip off of Clarence Starling in Silence of the Lambs. The jump cuts, and the way the murders are shot are very reminiscent of Se7en, and the whole atmosphere and environment is taken almost shot by shot from the Hannibal Lector classic.
Even with such derivative material as this, the fact that the film remains watcheable is down to some competent direction and performances. Diane Lane , whilst never able to live up to Jodie Foster, still manages to portray her character in a ways that elicits much sympathy and empathy from the audience. She always seems believable, a strong character who also undergoes realistic emotions as she becomes more and more of a target for the killer. Her relationship with Dowd is also well portrayed - with a refreshing lack of romantic entwinement which makers of this kind of film usually manage to shoehorn into events.
The direction, too, is competent without being outstanding. The director (Gregory Hoblit) is a veteran of more gritty TV cop shows such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue and he brings that darkness to the film, using the environments of the city to good effect. He keeps the pace of the action at a brisk level whilst always giving events, and his characters, time to breathe. He is not a showy director, and so avoids the flashy camera moves so beloved of today's film and TV shows. Instead he uses almost old fashioned, slow reveals and stationary cameras with unusual angles in order to build the suspense and unsettle the viewer. It is a clever technique.
However, although there is much to admire in Untraceable, sadly the film is just too derivative in order to blow the viewer away. There are a couple of scenes here which could have been lifted straight from Silence of the Lambs, and towards the end, the plot starts to get ever more predictable. We just know, for example, that someone close to Marsh is going to get caught by the killer - and we also know that Marsh herself is going to become a victim. It is just inevitable, and no amount of clever direction and decent acting can disguise the fact that most movie literate viewers will work out the ending within about five minutes.
However, this familiarity could also serve in the film's favour. As much as a film about serial killers could ever feel comfortable then this is the thriller equivalent of slipping into a warm bath. Yes, it is predictable. Yes, it is obvious. And it is in no way up to scratch when compared with the great genre films it tried to mimic (it even proudly mentions 7 on the back of the box). Yet there is a certain originality stylistically in the way the film is shot, and the whole package is put together in a solid, if unspectacular way.
If you are looking for a film to keep you on the edge of your seat - something to shock and surprise, then you will be better off looking elsewhere. If, however, you are a fan of the genre than you may well find this film worth a look.