THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"TAKING LIVES"

Here’s another example of our old friend, the Serial Killer Movie. A genre unto itself, the Serial Killer Movie has certain inescapable elements. First, there’s the killer with a gimmick (he only kills people named Phil on Arbor Day!). Then there’s a plucky hero (or, more increasingly, heroine) who will stop at nothing to track the killer down. Finally, there’s the ubiquitous Surprise Plot Twist at the end that, more often than not, comes as something less than a surprise. The last time we saw the Serial Killer Movie was a mere three weeks ago, with Ashley Judd’s Twisted. Here it is again, with Taking Lives. Although this film adheres closely to many of the conventions of the genre, it generally adds enough fresh things to make it a cut above the rest.

Angelina Jolie plays FBI profiler Illeana Scott, who uses unorthodox techniques to put herself in the mind of the killer. The first time we see her, she’s lying in a victim’s grave, just to get the vibe. When we first meet Illeana, she is tracking down a killer running loose in Montreal. His modus operandi soon becomes clear; he kills people, then assumes their identity for a while (hence the clever double meaning in the film’s title). The only person ever to catch a glimpse of the killer is an artist/gallery owner named Costa (Ethan Hawke), who appears traumatized by what he saw. There is some suspicion that the killer will come back for Costa, so Illeana helps to supervise his safety.

A number of other characters figure into the plot as well, including the killer’s mother (Gena Rowlands) who warns police about how dangerous her son is; French-Canadian detective Paquette (Olivier Martinez), who resents the sheer presence of the American FBI profiler; and a mystery man (Keifer Sutherland), whose purpose in the plot is best left unspoken here.

When reviewing a movie like Taking Lives, it is difficult to say much about the plot for fear of giving away crucial elements. That’s alright, though, because the plot here is pretty standard. What I’d rather talk about is the fact that, despite some common threads, Taking Lives worked for me. Despite having seen dozens of pictures in this genre, I found myself getting involved.

Casting is a big key. Angelina Jolie is very good here. Somehow, when her character lies down in a grave or tapes pictures of crime scenes to her bedroom wall, it doesn’t seem all that strange. Through a combination of talent and – yes – her somewhat bizarre persona, Jolie is surprisingly believable in this role. She has some interesting scenes with Ethan Hawke - also a very good, intense actor. Eventually a sexual relationship develops between Illeana and Costa. A lot of times, this kind of thing seems forced in movies, but it unfolds in a different way here. Without revealing too much, let me also say that the actor who plays the killer does a generally good job of not overacting. There is menace in the performance rather than camp.

Another thing I really liked was the visual look of the film. Director DJ Caruso (The Salton Sea) and cinematographer Amir M. Mokri bring a style to the visuals that proves indispensable. Rather than going for a generically creepy look, they find the eeriness in reality. I don’t know how much sense it makes to say, but Taking Lives feels more authentic than most Serial Killer Movies. I even jumped twice, which is something that almost never happens.

The screenplay by Jon Bokencamp (based on the novel by Michael Pye) brings some unusual twists to the old formula. I like the character of the killer’s mother, who appears haunted by her son’s deeds, but not afraid of them. The idea that the killer would repeatedly kill drifters in order to steal their identities caught my attention too. It’s not as gimmicky a premise as most. (In Twisted, for example, the killer only murdered men whom Ashley Judd’s homicide detective had promiscuously slept with.) Psychological explanations for movie serial killers tend to be something less than scientifically plausible, but this one…well, maybe. The last few minutes of the story stretch credibility somewhat, although there’s an unexpected twist in the catching of the killer that was neat in the way it subverted expectations.

Any time Hollywood unleashes a Serial Killer Movie, there’s always some quote-whore critic who proclaims it “the scariest movie since The Silence of the Lambs!!!” Of course, it’s never true. That film worked so powerfully because it was grounded in realism, both in the way it portrayed serial killers and in the way it captured the nervy determination of those who pursue them. Most entries in the genre don’t understand this fundamental truth, and therefore fail on a dramatic level. Taking Lives gets it more than most of them. It’s not the kind of picture that will leave you with chills for weeks, but it is entertaining and absorbing for a couple of hours.

( out of four)


Taking Lives is rated R for strong violence including disturbing images, language and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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