Taking Lives Review
On the surface, there's a lot to admire in Taking Lives. Director DJ Caruso does an excellent job of building atmosphere and suspense and making routine action scenes amazingly effective. The look he and cinematographer Amir M Mokri give the film is often breathtaking, making excellent use of the chilly Quebecan locations. In the lead role, Angelina Jolie does her best acting work in years, reminding us, not before time, that she deserved her Oscar for Girl, Interrupted. Gena Rowlands lends strong support and, while the male cast is hamstrung by having to take turns as potential suspects, I liked Olivier Martinez and Jean-Hugues Anglade as a pair of cynical, bickering detectives, overqualified though these actors are for such roles. A lot of talented people have worked hard to make Taking Lives better than it deserves to be but there's only so much they can do. Underneath the elegant wrapping is a very mundane script that recalls the kind of mechanical whodunnit Joe Eszterhas used to churn out back in the nineties.
FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) is invited to Canada by the Montreal police to help them solve a ritualistic murder case. They have a witness and possible suspect, an art dealer named James Costa (Ethan Hawke) who claims he stumbled upon the murder and saw the killer's face. His story proves to be true when Costa himself becomes the next target. Under pressure from the cops, he reluctantly agrees to act as bait and, in the course of setting up the trap, he tentatively strikes up a friendship and a flirtation with the standoffish Agent Scott. At the same time, the FBI agent is digging deeper into the case and she uncovers a string of similar murders leading back to the 1980s. Not only were the victims killed in the same way but it appears the murderer took over their identities. They're not dealing with an ordinary maniac here but a brilliant and utterly cold-blooded serial killer.
Screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp, adapting a novel by Michael Pye, sets up an intriguing situation and then buries it under an endless series of twists, reversals and red herrings. Taking Lives is almost Agatha Christie-like in its determination to jerk you around and surprise you. At least one major character exists only to not be what we suspected. I'm not necessarily against films that play the audience like a piano, as Alfred Hitchcock put it, although the smarter directors, the Hitchcocks, De Palmas and Verhoevens have the sense to do it with a wink and let the audience enjoy being played. The problem with this movie is that it wants to jerk us around and still be taken seriously as a thriller about the darker corners of the human mind. You can't have it both ways. The Silence Of The Lambs and Seven played more or less straight with their storylines. Taking Lives also fails the crucial challenge of all such thrillers: to ensure the plot still hangs together after all the twists have been revealed. I still don't understand what the killer's plan was, whether he conceived it before or after the story had begun and what he hoped to gain from it. Then there's the climactic scene, in which Agent Scott and the unmasked murderer have their last confrontation. I can't decide whether it seems more absurd before or after the final twist.