All the style in the world can't save a stupid script, though Taking Lives director D.J. Caruso sure gives it his best shot. The film certainly starts with an interesting premise, even if it feels like the sort of thing that only happens in gimmicky cop movies with punny titles: The story concerns a serial killer who has spent nearly two decades not only bumping off his victims, but assuming their identities, too—using their credit cards, paying their taxes, even pursuing their dreams. But Caruso shows little interest in developing this idea; instead of following the killer, he follows the cops, and along the way he takes a film that started with intrigue and turns it into a fairly routine thriller that eventually spirals into silliness.

Angelina Jolie as Illeana

Angelina Jolie as Illeana

Angelina Jolie stars as Illeana Scott, a bright FBI profiler who has come to Montreal to help the local police solve a murder. Obsessed with her work, she tacks crime-scene photos above her hotel bed and to the chair opposite hers at the dinner table, and she has a fine eye for detail. At several points, the film cuts between intense close-ups of her eyes and the details they scan, from the facial features of the people she interviews to the objects they handle while she talks to them. Illeana also knows just what tricks to play in the interrogation room to determine whether or not someone should be a suspect.

One witness who crosses her path is Costa (Ethan Hawke), an artist who not only may have seen the killer, but can draw the suspect's face—no need for a police sketch here! And since Illeana is played by a sexy Hollywood actress, her professonalism is inevitably thrown to the winds, as she strikes up a rapport with Costa that segues quickly from friendship to something more, despite the fact that he is still very much tied to the case—if not as a suspect, then at least as bait, once the cops try to set a trap for the killer.

Ethan Hawke as Costa

Ethan Hawke as Costa

In true thriller fashion, Taking Lives hints that Illeana's seemingly innocent new friend just might be the killer himself—his many questions about her life do seem suspiciously compatible with the killer's modus operandi—but the film also tosses us other possibilities, such as a certain man (Kiefer Sutherland) who seems to be stalking Costa for reasons unknown. Or the killer could be someone else entirely that we have not yet seen.

Caruso—a veteran of cop shows like The Shield and Robbery Homicide Division, whose only other feature film was The Salton Sea, an interesting if flawed story about drug addicts, psychotic dealers and undercover narcotics cops—seems pretty comfortable with the trappings of this genre, and he milks the mystery for all it's worth.

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The film's prologue, which takes place in 1983 and shows the teenaged killer making one of his first kills, is suitably jarring and just a little creepy. And for the first hour or so, you may be inclined to forgive Taking Lives for clichés like the fact that the cops always walk around with flashlights instead of turning the lights on—the dingy beams of light look so cool and stylish, it would be churlish to complain. There is also a great "Gotcha!" moment guaranteed to get the audience jumping in their seats—though the minute you start to think about it, it begins to make less and less sense.

Canadians may be inclined to cut the film some slack, since it isn't all that often that Canada, which has been home to many American "runaway productions," gets to play itself. Even the change in currency over the past two decades is depicted correctly!

Olivier Martinez as Paquette

Olivier Martinez as Paquette

But I'm a Canadian, and I simply can't cut the film that much slack. One can only forgive so much, and eventually, the script, written by Jon Bokenkamp from a novel by Michael Pye, runs off in some pretty indefensible directions. For one thing, the sexualization of Illeana's friendship with Costa (and the exploitation of Jolie's nudity) is pretty gratuitous, especially after we have seen her put up with the sexist humour of her male colleagues (La Femme Nikita's Tchéky Karyo and Unfaithful's Olivier Martinez).

The film also gives a token nod to the idea that Illeana and the killer may have something in common—because they both try to get inside people's minds, see—but it doesn't explore this theme in any particularly meaningful way. The film also lets go of its red herrings a little too quickly, and once the killer's identity is revealed, it keeps going, and going, deferring its resolution to a tedious epilogue that takes place in a different country several months later.

The film's villain may take fictitious lives, but the film itself takes up real time that could be spent on better things.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. The villain seems, at least at first, to be motivated by jealousy. How does jealousy affect our own actions? How can we learn to be satisfied with what we have?

  2. Where does our own sense of personhood come from? (See Gen. 1:27; Psalm 139:13-16). Is it given to us, or do we take it from somewhere? If we feel that we have not received enough love or attention—from parents, friends, God, etc.—what should we do?

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  1. Should people separate their personal lives from their careers? If so, how? At what point should people stop taking their work home with them? Discuss ways we sometimes "define" ourselves by what we do, rather than who we are. What's right or wrong with that?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Taking Lives is rated R for violence, sexuality, and mild language. The film includes several images of naked corpses with smashed-in faces and/or missing limbs, as well as severed fingers and close-ups of stitches and injections. In addition, there is some nudity during an impromptu sex scene, and a man tries to stab a pregnant woman.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 03/25/04

Director D. J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) is earning high praise from critics for his work on Taking Lives, the new serial-killer thriller starring Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands, Olivier Martinez, and Jean-Hugues Anglade. But his efforts are wasted on a faulty script, which apparently falls apart at the end when Illeana (Jolie) finally learns the identity of the killer and the solution to the elaborate puzzle. Thus, most mainstream critics are suggesting that people steer clear of this stinker.

Religious press critics are as troubled by the excessive gore as they are by the preposterous conclusion.

"At least there was a point and a message behind the bloody violence we saw in The Passion of The Christ," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "In Taking Lives, it is merely a matter of gore for gore's sake. Despite the attempts of misdirection, the identity of the killer is not that well-masked. Anyone who is familiar with the genre and is halfway perceptive should be able to figure out who did what to whom long before it is revealed."

Misty Wagner (Christian Spotlight) calls it "a very average crime/profiler movie—much like a version of the hit television show C.S.I. made to fit into the format of a big screen movie. The trailers gave the impression that it was a horror/psychological thriller. However, I can assure you that this movie is not scary."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls the film "a mixed bag. While the level of filmmaking is a few cuts below The Silence of the Lambs in terms of character and story development, Taking Lives stops short of asking viewers to embrace its mass murderer as an anti-hero, as was the case with … Hannibal Lecter. And though, admittedly, the film is more concerned with eliciting screams than sociological discussion, it does offer the devastating effects of childhood alienation as a means of explaining—though not justifying—the horrible crimes committed."

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Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, it's "a creepy movie that fully deserves its R-rating. It will keep you on the edge of your seat, with several unexpected twists that maintain the suspense. The film is also well-acted, with excellent performances from Jolie, Hawke, Martinez, Sutherland and Jean-Hugues Anglade."

from Film Forum, 04/01/04

Reviewing Taking Lives, Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "[The director] takes a film that started with intrigue and turns it into a fairly routine thriller that eventually spirals into silliness."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "The writer and director of Taking Lives have put together a real thriller that keeps the audience guessing from the beginning to the very end—literally. No matter how prepared you might be, you will jump in your seat a few times if you see this movie, and you'll change your mind frequently as to the identity of the killer. That said, Taking Lives deserves better treatment than it got—by the director, not the critics. Far too much time is spent focusing on gory crime scenes, dead bodies, and explicit sex and violence."

Taking Lives
Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
 
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Mpaa Rating
R (for strong violence including disturbing images, language and some sexuality)
Directed By
D.J. Caruso
Run Time
1 hour 49 minutes
Cast
Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands
Theatre Release
March 19, 2004 by Warner Brothers
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