Taking Lives (2004) Movie Review

Moviegoers have always had a perverse fascination with serial killers and their heinous acts. The concept of someone hunting their own species attracts audiences like Paris Hilton to a photo-op. “Taking Lives” tries to offer a new twist on the genre, and even though it only partially succeeds, it’s still an entertaining thriller.

The title refers to what the killer does in this film — murdering someone and literally assuming their identity. When he outgrows that life, the insane process repeats itself. The killer has been doing this for numerous years, but this time his luck may have run out. Tracking him is intuitive agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie), armed with what could be a crucial lead in the case: a young artist has come forward claiming to have witnessed one of the murders and can even give a drawing of the assailant’s face. Compounding this is the mother of a victim who claims to have clearly seen her long dead son and he might have murder on his mind.

Adapted from the novel by Michael Pye by Jon Bankenkamp, “Taking Lives” is a fairly intelligent thriller. It presents us with an unusual killer who despises his own life to such a degree he has to hijack the existence of others. Although there is a fairly weak red herring, the movie does make up for it with a surprise ending that’s a reasonably satisfying payoff for what’s come before.

Angelina Jolie (“Original Sin”) is a luscious fantasy, making you wish you were a mutilated corpse just to get her undivided attention. Aside from that, she effectively portrays a gifted investigator sucked into a case that becomes more and more horrific. In a nice change of pace from bad guy roles, Tcheky Karyo (“Kiss of the Dragon”) plays a policeman sympathetic to Illeana and seems to remain on her side even when his colleagues turn against her.

But it is the performance of Paul Dano, seen only in the film’s opening, which is most mesmerizing. As a young version of the killer, we see the inspiration in his eyes as he figures out how to leave his old life behind. In the aftermath, you not only see the triumph in getting away with murder, but a sense of profound relief that he’s finally done it.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast doesn’t perform quite as well. Keifer Sutherland (“Desert Saints”) is completely wasted in a three-minute cameo. It’s hard to rate his performance since he’s barely in the film. Oliver Martinez (“SWAT”) is simply annoying and you can’t help but wish he’d be the victim of the next grisly death. Ethan Hawke (“Before Sunrise”) is no bargain either, and his character’s sensitivity seems affected. Also, he’s not much of an artist, as his work looks like it was painted by Bobo the chimpanzee. There’s no question he’s an excellent actor, but it certainly isn’t evident here. Hopefully in his next film the talented Ethan Hawke will show up for work instead of looking like he just woke up.

D.J. Caruso does a good job in the director’s chair, keeping an eerie, bleak, and stylish look to the film. However, he does fail to conjure up any chemistry between Jolie and Hawke, and the two seem to be on a perpetual blind date. There’s no real tension or sexual heat between them and you frequently wonder what she sees in the guy. The visuals by cinematographer Amir Mokri, under the direction of Caruso, are beautiful and give the Canadian locale a scenic look. Composer Philip Glass is on target as always with his tense score, and listening to his work is almost worth the price of a rental.

The director’s cut adds only 6 minutes of footage, mostly gratuitous shots of Jolie’s nudity during her love scene with Hawke. On second thought, maybe that’s not so gratuitous after all and we should thank heaven for small favors. “Taking Lives” is ultimately an entertaining thriller about the dark side of the human psyche. Viewers may find that the film treads familiar ground, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

D.J. Caruso (director) / Michael Pye (novel), Jon Bokenkamp (screen story)
CAST: Angelina Jolie …. Illeana
Ethan Hawke …. Costa
Kiefer Sutherland …. Hart
Gena Rowlands …. Mrs. Asher
Olivier Martinez …. Paquette

Buy Taking Lives on DVD