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Taking Lives

Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands, Olivier Martinez, Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Hughes Anglade

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 19 Mar 2004; 2004)

Abject

Special Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) is what you might call “eccentric.” Like so many brilliant detectives before her, this FBI investigator is aggressive and intuitive, prone to odd behavior and arrogance. Not so long ago, she would have been a male detective, but nowadays, it passes for “progress” to show women behaving as improbably as men. She first


In Taking Lives, the enigmatic Illeana is introduced indirectly. When it appears that a serial killer is loose in and around Montreal, Surete du Quebec Director Leclair (Tchéky Karyo) calls in the girl he observed at Quantico some years before, declaring her just the brainiac they need to break this case. (Why they need to import talent is not clear.) The previously assigned detectives have opposite reactions: scruffy Duval (Jean-Hugues Anglade) welcomes the assistance, but hotshot Paquette (Olivier Martinez) resents it. And so, as it turns out, the ultra-special Scott still needs to prove herself (again, like so many brilliant detectives before her).


With her reputation preceding her, Scott’s first appearance needs to be wowza. And so, the camera starts close, passing over her neck, lips, and forehead, as she lies still, eyes closed. Cut to her fingers, gracefully fidgeting, and then to a longer shot, revealing that she is lying in a grave, caught in Duval’s flashlight beam. Though she quickly scampers from hole without explanation, you’re given to believe that she’s been “feeling” what the killer’s most recent victim endured. (How this will help her crack the case is also unclear.) Warmly greeted by Leclair, she is eager to get to work, which means feeling her way through crime scene photos, scraps of evidence, bodies on morgue slabs. When Scott stands over a corpse, her fingers playing the air while the morgue attendant is banished to a corner of the room and the detectives pace outside startlingly red doors, you start to get your own “feeling.” This movie is long on style and short on sense.


You might also get the feeling that the makers of Taking Lives have watched Seven one too many times. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, as David Fincher’s movie is not only evocative and darkly elegant, but also famously influential. Indeed, the skritchy opening credits sequence for Taking Lives is striking and smart, even if it is derivative. It’s a good to name your sources upfront, so your audience can make comparisons without thinking you’re ripping off dishonestly or worse, unintentionally.


The ensuing plot has no such integrity, though the clever aesthetics carry the action for a first hour or so (aided by Philip Glass’ unusually modest score). Illeana and the dicks meet with a witness, a local art dealer named James Costa (Ethan Hawke, mostly unbelievable), who conveniently draws well enough to provide a decent sketch of the man he saw smashing another man’s face with a big stone. Here Illeana demonstrates her ace detecting skills when she deftly drops the murder weapon (a bloody garrote, whomping onto the floor in close-up) in order to gauge Costa’s reaction. Oh, cunning woman!


While Illeana is showing off (and Jolie does make the most of her character’s tendency to seduce her various audiences), the men around her are: a) trying to outsmart her, and b) trying to keep up with her, usually at the same time. Their posturing tends to put them at odds with her, as when Paquette makes “bad titty jokes” in French, or Costa flirts with her to the point that she feels her own evolving feelings will “cloud my judgment” (that she’s aware of the problem may be to her credit; that she plunges ahead anyway is surely not).


Jon Bokenkamp’s script, based on Michael Pye’s novel, goes on to provide Costa with too much screen time, as Illeana figures out that the killer is “taking lives” (in other words, adopting his victims’ identities), and that Costa is next in line. (Again, the logic is unclear: why would the murderer would pick someone the cops know? Though Illeana describes Costa as “unfinished business,” as the life-taking has been going on for some 20 years, this presumed move is patently silly.) And, this lack of sense is exacerbated when the detectives locate the killer’s mother, Mrs. Asher (Gena Rowlands), who has recently seen him, just for an instant, identifying him by his apparently unmistakable eyes. Though Mom can likely provide DNA (even her own) by which to detect the killer, no one thinks to work this angle, instead sending Illeana (the self-described “headstrong FBI agent” who proposes to feign ignorance of Canadian law) to break into the woman’s home in search of a “secret” room. As Mom has come to the police trying to get her evil son caught, this bit of deceit is not a little odd.


While Illeana dominates every shot she’s in (Amir M. Mokri’s camera loves her in every possible light or frame), the women (all two of them) in Taking Lives repeatedly get the short end of the stick. She concludes that the killer gets some indeterminate “sexual” thrill from the murders (as he typically strangles them “from behind”), which more or less makes all the suspects, including the late-arriving Hart (Kiefer Sutherland), look rather “gay,” skulking in doorways and art galleries and fashioning little twisted-paper figures.


Still, by film’s end, these amorphous anxieties about homosexuality are forgotten, or maybe just repressed, in favor of increasing fears of the maternal body. Yes, these concerns would be related, if Taking Lives developed any of its rudimentary scares into actual themes. But no. The scares remain superficial (if well lit). Worse, in order to set them in motion, the film falls back on the oldest trick in the book, placing the girl—that would be the supposedly brilliant profiler Illeana—in dire jeopardy. And so, she is reduced to abject stupidity, along with the rest of the plot.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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