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“Untraceable” by Gregory Hobbs Essay

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Updated: Nov 4th, 2021

On the whole, critics run into serious difficulties while classifying any genuine work of art according to its genre peculiarities because it is always inclined to go beyond the bounds of convention or tradition. In addition to that, such a notion as genre is not static; on the contrary, it evolves with time passing and acquires some new features. This rule is quite applicable to cinematography. In this paper, we are going to discuss such films as Untraceable, released in 2008. This movie was directed by Gregory Hobbs, and its makers attempted to throw light on some rather stressful problems of modern society (Hornaday, 1). Again, it is hardly possible for us to refer to this film to any specific genre; to a certain degree, Untraceable is an amalgam or synthesis of a thriller, detective, and horror film. It should be borne in mind that all of them take their origin in Gothic fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Rubin, 1).

Our main task is to analyze this movie in terms of typical genre conventions, namely, we need to focus on such aspects as the development of the plot, the main characters, special effects, and most importantly the atmosphere which the film creates. Moreover, we should pay extra attention to those moments, where Untraceable deviates from the established tradition. It is also of crucial importance to evaluate this film within the context of present day situations in American and international society, for instance, rapid growth in information technologies and its negative impacts. This analysis will enable us to show the changes in the genre of thriller. Besides, we might be able to form certain conclusions about popular culture, new tendencies and their rather paradoxical and cruel nature.

As it has been noted before, Untraceable is a mixture of thriller, crime, and horror movies. These genres have many features in common. First and foremost, we should mention the atmosphere of suspense, the condition of being insecure or uncertain (Rubin, 66). As a rule the audience is kept in the dark throughout the film and only at the end the mystery or secret is disclosed. Another aspect, which we may not disregard, is the main characters. In the vast majority of cases, the protagonist and antagonist are equally matched. Usually, the antagonist reminds some invincible, untraceable villain, some evil genius, who can be defeated only by some overwhelming force. Overall, we may state that such villain has its literary archetype, Professor Moriarty; this image was created at the beginning of the nineteenth century by a famous English writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If we look take of closer look at Owen Reilly, the murder and maniac, who constantly avoids police, we may such is a typical villain, with delusion of grandeur.

As regards Agent Jenifer Marsh, it has to be admitted that she is also not quite original. It is not easy to identify the sources, on which the film-makers relied. But the archetype of a female detective was first introduced by Agatha Christie; her famous Miss Marple has given rise to many popular icons. It stands to reason that it has been modified several times, several amendments were made, but the essence remains. The female detective, able to solve the most difficult puzzle, has become quite commonplace nowadays.

There are some other elements in this film, which give us reason to believe that this movie is a mixture of a thriller, detective story, and horror. For instance, it should be pointed out, that its title is highly commercial. In this case, we need to discuss the functions, which this name of the film performs. First, it catches the attention of the audience, the word Untraceable sounds somewhat intriguing and luring. Consciously or subconsciously, any person is almost bound to take notice. Naturally, it does not necessarily mean that he or she will watch this movie. Again we should stress the fact that the film-makers primarily intended to make the title more conspicuous.

Furthermore, we should not forget about the behavior of the police. In a conventional thriller movie, they are unable to unravel the case on their own. The most peculiar feature of practically all detective stories is the helplessness of the law machinery, which is reduced to the role of a mere onlooker of events (Leitch, p 88). Certainly, there are some exceptions, but according to traditional pattern, most officers are no match to the invincible and untraceable criminal. The criminal constantly avoids them; he even plays cat-and-mouse with the police, as if his intention is to deride the authorities or to emphasize the idea of his impunity.

In this regard, we should say that Untraceable has several predecessors. Arguable, the most famous film, exploring this particular issue, is Seven, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Additionally, that such phenomenon as the murder on the Web has already been described in the movie Death.com. In point of fact, a great number of cinema critics suggest that these works are analogous to each other (Newman, 4). Some even accuse Gregory Hobbs of plagiarism, though it seems that Untraceable takes slightly different approach to this problem and aims to produce a different effect.

Of course, there is some sufficient evidence, suggesting that Untraceable is a conventional thriller or horror film. In particular, we may remember such device as failed suspense. The essence of this technique lies in the following: at a certain point, the audience is firmly convinced that something terrible is about to happen to the protagonist or his or her relatives and friends, but as a matter of fact there is no reason to think so (Leitch, p 85). Untraceable abounds in such tricks, especially, when the daughter of Agent Jenifer Marsh seems to be kidnapped by the maniac. Occasionally, such effect is achieved without any visual aids, only by means of music. It appears that the film-makers tried to make full use of music, which often misleads the viewer, and makes him or her form false conclusions about the development of the plot.

Finally, we should speak about traditional happy ending. Over the last decade, many cinematographers have abandoned this essentially Hollywood approach, labeling it as banal or too orthodox and confirmative. Detective Jenifer Marsh is rescued by her partners, the maniac is no longer dangerous, and the film, itself, draws to its logical close. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration for us to state that Untraceable has all typical features of a suspense thriller. Its storyline, the main characters (and their prototypes) eloquently prove that this is a formulaic movie, based on some well-established patterns.

This argument must not be perceived as an accusation. One should not forget that we are living in the age of postmodernism, in which every work of art (a book, film, musical piece etc) contains reminiscences, or allusions to another one. Naturally, art, itself has become highly commercialized; unfortunately sometimes it turns into mass consumer goods. On the one hand, we may suggest that Untraceable is just a popcorn film that comes into oblivion immediately after the release. Yet, such treatment is slightly superficial and does not fully disclose the essence of this work.

The question arises how the genre of a thriller has changed during the recent years. We can hardly identify exact timelines, because this process is very slow and gradual. At first glance, the distinctive features are not obvious and evasive. In order to detect these changes, we need to draw parallels between Untraceable and other films, executed in the style of a thriller or detective story.

First, in a traditional crime movie, the main character or the defective, who tries to capture the criminal, is a male, whereas women are usually portrayed as vulnerable and fragile, someone, who need to be protected and even rescued. Naturally, there are many films, picturing women as the main rivals of the dangerous villain, but this tendency is relatively young, it began to manifest itself approximately ten or twelve years (Leitch, p 182).

Probably, this trend in cinematography illustrates the impact of feminist movement on the modern society. The gender roles began to change and common stereotypes, deep-rooted in the public opinion are now broken. This shift is not complete, but its tokens have already become palpable, especially in literature and cinematography, which act as a mirror, reflecting the principles or behavior patterns, adopted in the present day community.

Nonetheless, it is impermissible for us to claim that Jenifer Marsh acquires the qualities of some superhero. To a certain degree, she is a paragon of modern women, which skillfully combines rational and irrational thinking; she is a paragon of strength and vulnerability. Thus, we may suggest that the protagonist does not fully fall into traditional frames.

Furthermore, the setting is slightly different, it should be taken into account that Jenifer Marsh works in cybercrime division, which is also rather unusual. Such issue as Internet and its influence on the relations between people is subject of though psychological and sociological analysis, as far as cinematography is concerned, we need to acknowledge that the film-makers took avid interest in it only five or ten years ago. For a long time thrillers or horror movies were not curious about this question, deeming it as rather unpromising. Though, now we can see the turn of the tide. Overall, thrillers, crime or horror movies are now more diverse in terms of themes, they throw light on. Certainly, the techniques and methods, employed by the film-makers are practically the same, but the background and setting are more diverse.

The development of any cinematographic genre is motivated by some new cultural and social tendencies. At the end of the twentieth century, humankind has witnessed the advent of the so-called cyber space, which may be both real and imaginary. Such film as Untraceable was not made accidentally, and under no circumstance it should be treated as a breakthrough. It was just a natural response to the follies of modern people and their tastes. In point of fact, this movie is the direct indictment of popular culture, which is based on violence and aggression. In order to confirm this hypothesis, we have to refer to some details of the plot. Owen Reilly has devised a very cruel but rather elaborate scheme, he actually does not kill the victims, as a matter of fact, they die because of users who visit the websites, and there are thousands of them. The main problem is that the police officials warn people against entering the website, saying that they are harming innocent people. But their appeal is of no avail.

Now, it is essential to tell why the makers of Untraceable decided to focus on this particular issue. The detrimental effects of the World Wide Web have already been scrutinized by many scholars. Some of them argue that it has created a new type of culture, which seeks some sensual and primitive pleasures. According to such author as David Porter, the cyberspace provides people with new types of entertainment (David Porter, p 62). Technically, they are not new, because people has always been fond of watching the scenes of violence or bloodshed, for instance, gladiators fights.

The thing is that very often people shift the blame from themselves onto the mass media and state that modern television and Internet significantly contribute to moral corruption of the young generation. Yet, they overlook the fact that mass media offer us only those sensations, for which we hanker. Perhaps, we should refer to the final scene of Untraceable, because it represents the main idea, this film is supposed to render. Namely, when Owen Reilly is shot, people no longer visit the website (killmwithme.dom, to be more exact) and we can hear somewhat dissatisfied mumbling, proving that some of them wanted this abominable show to be continued.

In part, this is the reason why Untraceable was not received well by the public. Most reviews were subjecting this film to heavy criticism for its predictability and brutality, but they were carefully avoiding the moral questions, raised in this movie. In fact, some critics have completely ignored the fact, that Owen Reilly was not actually murdering his victims. One should not presume that Untraceable is a masterpiece of the world cinematography, but its message is rather powerful, especially we read between the lines.

The question arises whether it is fair to blame mass media, television of being morally corrupt; they give us exactly what we desire. Economists usually classify such relations as the chain of supply and demand. The tragedy is that the events, described in this film, are not quite fictional, to some extent, they are even based on true facts. Every person, who intends to find such videos on the Web, can easily do it through any search engine. It goes without saying that the governments in all countries are taking all possible measures in order to eradicate this phenomenon, but legal actions are of no use in this particular case.

Again, we should place emphasis that modern culture, especially if we are speaking about the Internet, is anonymous; therefore, it is next to impossible to find people, responsible for it. Besides, cyber space is a mixture of real and imaginary world, and one can hardly draw a distinct line between these two realms, affording people with almost unheard-of opportunities.

Therefore, we can arrive at the conclusion that the film Untraceable contains both typical and atypical elements of a horror and crime film; in particular we may speak about the predictability of the story line and some traditional twists of the plot. Moreover, we should mention the main characters, derived from certain literary prototypes, though the authors make some modifications. Furthermore, Untraceable utilizes some conventional techniques, creating the atmosphere of suspense. These are the elements, inherent to both thrillers and crime films. Nevertheless, in its own way, Untraceable indicates that these genres evolve and become more complicated, particularly, they are more concerned with social and even cultural, social and moral drawbacks of contemporary society.


Ann Hornaday. “Untraceable: Snared in its own Sordid Trap” Washington Post, 2008.

Bruce Newman. “Untraceable: Steaming Horror”. San Jose Mercury News, 2008.

David Porter. “Internet culture”. Routledge, 1997.

Martin Rubin. “Thrillers”. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Thomas Leitch. “Crime Films”. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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