Director : D.J. Caruso
Screenplay : Jon Bokenhamp (based on the novel by Michael Pye)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Angelina Jolie (Illeana Scott), Ethan Hawke (James Costa), Kiefer Sutherland (Hart), Gena Rowlands (Mrs. Asher), Olivier Martinez (Paquette), Tchéky Karyo (Leclair), Jean-Hugues Anglade (Duval), Paul Dano (Young Asher), Justin Chatwin (Matt Soulsby)
Taking Lives is a flat, derivative psycho-thriller that suffers badly from having no chemistry between its two leads. Director D.J. Caruso and cinematographer Amir M. Mokri, who worked together on 2002’s The Salton Sea, complicate it further by bathing most of it in such soft, gloomy darkness than the whole thing starts to resemble a big ink smudge; there’s none of the complex interplay of light and shadow that characterized Seven (1995), the film it so clearly apes visually. It also continues the B-grade thriller tendency to borrow Seven’s highly stylized opening credits montage to give it a sense of creepy-aesthetic atmosphere, except here it’s so blatantly similar that I genuinely expected to hear Trent Reznor’s raspy voice singing “You get me closer to God” at the end.
Continuing to prove that the Best Supporting Actress Oscar curse is a genuine reality, Angelina Jolie plods her way through the role of Illeana Scott, a hyper-focused FBI agent who is a clear descent of Clarice Starling, but without the sympathetic humanity. Illeana is called up to Montreal to help investigative a serial killer case (those poor Canadians—they apparently don’t know the first thing about serial killers). We know who’s behind it all because, in the precredits sequence, we saw the fledging killer as a gangly adolescent commit his first murder and steal the identity of the victim (this, of course, saps the big “a-ha” moment when Illeana discloses to her colleagues that the killer is “taking lives,” something we’ve known from the get-go).
The key to the case is an artist and gallery owner named James Costa (Ethan Hawke) who witnessed the last murder and is able to make a drawing of the killer. The police figure that Costa is therefore unfinished business and the killer will return at some point to finish him off, so they dangle him like bait. That might seem mean except that Hawke makes Costa so instantly dislikeable that you actually hope he gets snuffed out. It’s not that Costa does anything overtly detestable; rather, it’s the way Hawke plays him as a pendulum swinging back and forth between gruff difficulty and aw-shucks victimhood. And, once Costa starts coming on to Illeana, he seems sleazy precisely when he should be sympathetic.
Unfortunately, this turns into a major development as Illeana, despite how she acts, apparently begins to fall for Costa, as well, which compromises her instincts and judgment. This is a significant problem for the film because Jolie and Hawke have no chemistry. There is no spark between them at all; Costa’s come-ons just seem creepy and Illeana’s apparent ambivalence has less to do with her being torn between duty and passion than her generally lacking the latter.
Illeana’s character, as presented, is frustratingly dense and not particularly well developed. For example, when we first meet her, she is lying in the grave where one of the victims was found, as if she has some kind of extrasensory perception that gives her insights; at another point, a character refers to the fact that others have called her a witch. This would seem to suggest some kind of supernatural dimension, yet nothing is ever made of it; it’s just left hanging there, like the gory crime scene photographs that Illeana tapes all over her hotel room in, I suppose, a nod toward her neverending compulsion to solve the case.
The rest of Taking Lives is filled out with a rote car chase, some utterly idiotic police behavior (I liked the scene where the officer who’s supposed to be protecting Costa waits for him outside while a man who is apparently the killer has Costa in a deathlock), and a few nods toward critiquing the male-chauvinistic work environment in the character of Paquette (Olivier Martinez), who is bitter that Illeana has been brought on board his investigation, although it’s not quite clear whether it’s because she’s a woman or an American.
This lack of focus is endemic to the whole film. Much like Sandra Bullock’s character in Murder by Numbers (2002), much is made of Illeana’s ability to match wits and toughness with any man on the force, only to repeatedly turn her into a simpering victim. The fact that she melts for someone as dull as Costa is the least of her problems. Likewise, the potentially intriguing notion of a serial killer who assumes other identities not just for convenience, but to mask his own inner loathing, is almost completely ignored. When the killer is finally unmasked, he’s not much more than a standard-issue, well-dressed psychopath, and there is not enough of interest in the rest of the movie—even its fairly clever twist ending—to justify another tired retread of that number.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Warner Bros. Entertainment