Angelina Jolie as Agent Illeana Scott
Ethan Hawke as John Costa
Kiefer Sutherland as Hart
Olivier Martinez as Detective Joseph Paquette
Jean-Hugues Anglade as Detective Emil Duval
Tcheky Karyo as Director Hugo Leclair
Gena Rowlands as Mrs. Asher
Justin Chatwin as Matt Soulsby
Paul Dano as Young Asher
A serial killer is on the loose in Canada, one who brutally kills his victims and then literally becomes them. FBI profiler Ileanna Scott (Jolie) has been brought up from Washington to try to help the local police solve the murders and catch the killer, which puts her into contact with a witness (Hawke) who quickly becomes the killer’s next intended victim. The question is whether Scott can solve the murders and stop the killer without getting personally involved.
If you enjoy classic serial killer films like Se7en, The Silence of the Lambs and Insomnia, this interesting thriller, based on the novel by Michael Pye, should be right up your alley. Although it follows the same straight-ahead storytelling formula of those other movies, the premise has a unique slant that allows the killer to literally be almost anyone. Like those other movies, it’s never really about who the killer is, but how the heroes will find and capture him before he kills again. The pacing for the movie is near perfect, never letting up with the action or suspense, keeping the viewer interested from beginning to end.
What makes Taking Lives special is the vision of director D.J. Caruso, whose 2002 debut The Salton Sea with Val Kilmer has become a bit of a cult classic. Caruso tends to owe more to the movies of Brian De Palma and recent television crime dramas like “CSI”, than to any of the thrillers mentioned above, using stylish and hyper-realistic close-ups and effects to keep the tension high. When Jolie and Martinez scope out the killer’s flat, one can’t help but squirm like when watching the similar scene in Se7en. It’s obvious that Caruso is as good a director as Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, and this seems like the perfect genre for him to shine.
The best thrillers usually come down to the cast, and while this one doesn’t have a Pacino or an Anthony Hopkins, the underrated cast does a decent job making the characters and situations seem real. Angelina Jolie, who looks amazing here, does a competent job playing Scott, a character that is a bit of enigma, especially her ghoulish fascination with death and corpses. This also makes the role perfectly suited for her. At times, she seems a bit like a Clarice Starling knock-off. It would have been nice to see a bit more of her back story, and why she acts the way she does, particularly her aversion to getting close to men. It’s interesting to see the strange relationship between her character and the resentful local police detective, played by Olivier Martinez.
Ethan Hawke’s performance is equally impressive, since he has to play so many different roles in the movie from witness to victim to lover. Many of the emotions and characteristics he displays are different from the characters he has played in the past. On the other hand, Kiefer Sutherland once again plays a psychopath, much like he did in last year’s Phone Booth. Although his time on screen is about as minimal, his scenes with Hawke will remind viewers of Anthony Hopkins’ best moments as Hannibal Lecter. Legendary actress Gena Rowlands has a nice turn as the killer’s mother, a woman who would make Norman Bates proud, as she seems partially responsible for her son’s sociopathic nature. One of the revelations about her son leads to one of the movie’s cleverest red herrings.
Like some of the best thrillers, the police/profiler procedural aspects of the story are top-notch, thanks to the expertise of FBI profiler Robert Ressler, who helped insure realism with the three Hannibal Lecter movies. Those with a morbid fascination for corpses and gore should enjoy the close-ups of the badly mutilated corpses, many which are rather stomach churning.
The action sequences are also well done, including a car chase that uses similar techniques as The Fast and the Furious, and the Quebec locations give the movie a distinctive atmosphere different from the normal New York or Los Angeles thriller settings. The creepy incidental music by composer Phillip Glass is well suited as are the song selections, kicking off with U2′s “With or Without You”. Overall, it makes for a great stylistic package.
What Didn’t Work:
Although the pacing never lets up, the movie’s cookie cutter formula makes it far too easy to predict the “surprise twists”. There are also far too many red herrings to the story that try to throw you off the scent of some of the more obvious ones, and while that would usually be commendable, it leaves the movie open up for one or two rather large plot holes which makes it hard to believe the “big reveal”.
Although his overall performance is solid, Hawke tends to be more annoying than charming as the nervous art dealer, and the romance between him and Jolie seems forced, at best. It’s set up early in the movie that her character avoids relationships, so it seems unrealistic that she’d be immediately attracted to him. It seems like a rather obvious plot device to have a female FBI agent fall for the male witness she’s protecting, but their relation never seems as “natural” as the classic Clarice Starling/Hannibal Lecter relationship that made The Silence of the Lambs so great.
The obligatory epilogue was made more disturbing by an element that I’m wary of spoiling, but it makes for a sequence that will be rather difficult to watch, especially for women. After watching an hour and a half of in-your-face violence and gore, it’s just a bit too much, and while the resolution is needed, this aspect of the ending didn’t seem necessary. It could be enough to turn many off from what is essentially a decent thriller.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re into serial killer thrillers, Taking Lives will only disappoint you if you’re looking for something completely new or different. The premise is immediately intriguing, and though the cast isn’t on a par with that of Insomnia or The Silence of the Lambs, they embellish this stylish and eerie thrill ride with interesting and believable characters. If you’re able to put aside the plausibility of the movie’s obvious twists, you’ll be on the edge of your seat for most of the movie. Some of the most powerful scenes will stick with you long past the end of the movie.