“Taking Lives” is a somber, absorbing thriller that treads familiar psycho serial killer terrain with style. Elegantly made and comparatively restrained in cramming sick and grisly stuff down the audience’s throat, pic builds tensely to a major revelation made with a half-hour left to go, after which the action becomes more conventional. But as these stop-him-before-he-kills-again manhunt yarns go, this one’s several cuts above the norm, which should spell sturdy early spring biz for this Angelina Jolie-Ethan Hawke starrer.
An American feature shot in Montreal that for once owns up to its setting and makes full use of the city’s atmospheric old section, this smart adaptation of Michael Pye’s novel centers on FBI Special Agent Illeana Scott (Jolie), a profiler called in by Canadian authorities to help solve a case in what seems to be part of a string of killings dating back two decades.
Prologue clearly explains that the killer began his career by assuming the identity of his victim, “life-jacking” his personality until it was time to move on, a practice he’s since repeated all too successfully. For her part, Illeana is introduced lying in a grave, trying to absorb and intuit everything she can about the fresh murder, and is subsequently earmarked as a woman apart when she’s glimpsed calmly eating dinner alone while meditating on a group of gruesome crime scene photographs.
The cops, led by Surete director Leclair (Tcheky Karyo) and detectives Paquette (Olivier Martinez) and Duval (Jean-Hugues Anglade), sense they might be closing in on the killer when a young painter, James Costa (Hawke), a bystander who interrupted the maniac’s latest attack, is able to provide a good description of him, resulting in a portrait that looks a good deal like Kiefer Sutherland.
Furthering the effort is a Mrs. Asher (Gena Rowlands), who reports to police that she’s just seen the “very dangerous” son who disappeared 19 years back. She later gives Illeana the key info that the missing son, Martin, was one of two twins, the other of whom supposedly perished as a teenager.
Illeana ultimately pieces together the killer’s hermit crab-like profile, just as, speaking of Costa, she quietly confesses to her old pal Leclair as to “having a reaction to the witness. Favorable.” The attraction is clearly mutual, but any physicality between the two is tenaciously held in check until the case appears to be closed after the Sutherland character finally emerges. Then all hell breaks loose, carnally, criminally and dramatically.
Dialogue by scripter Jon Bokenkamp, who helmed the indie “Preston Tylk” in 2000, is crisp and economical, giving the proficient thesps just enough to create some shadings in roles that are first and foremost pieces in a puzzle. At film’s end, some inconsistencies and irregularities loom in retrospect, but only a couple are jarring during the experience.
Overdoing things far less than he did on his debut feature “The Salton Sea,” director D.J. Caruso not only uses his locations exceedingly well but, in league with lenser Amir Mokri, imbues the proceedings in a sultry, often rainy darkness frequently pierced by blown window light and shafts of flashlight beams. Vet editor Anne V. Coates keeps the picture taut and the audience on its toes, Philip Glass’ relatively atypical score adds to the mysterious mood, and sound mix is dense.
In a nicely restrained, lid-on performance, Jolie can take advantage of her off-screen persona to help fill in the blanks in Illeana’s suggestively kinky, off-center personality. Having hit his stride as a bigscreen player in “Training Day,” Hawke continues in fine form here, pairing up well with Jolie, while familiar French thesps Karyo, Martinez and Anglade provide solid support, even if they don’t exactly sound Quebecois.