As Taking Lives began to take shape I had pretty high hopes. The opening scene was cryptically engaging. The story followed general crime movie stereotypes but showed promise. The characters were familiar but not annoyingly so. Unfortunately, somewhere in the middle, it fell into an absurdity, and I sat through the remainder of the film just hoping it would end.
Special Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) is an FBI profiler called in to help crack a tough French-Canadian case, with only a mutilated body as a lead. (Why an American agent is called to Canada I simply cannot guess but alas, she is). She discovers that the killer takes over the identity of his victim until he kills again. In fact, his family had believed that he had been dead for 19 years. When the killer's mother, Mrs. Asher, claims to have seen her supposedly long dead son, Martin, the pieces begin to fall into place. With the help of an artistic witness, James Costa (Ethan Hawke), who is willing to act as bait, she ardently tracks the killer. Matters complicate as Scott and Costa begin to realize their mutual attraction.
Taking Lives's opening scene of the slight, effeminate, bespectacled young man, who becomes a monster, is as tender as it is brutal. The film then glides into story's setup. It is one I have seen before, an unwelcome, woman, outsider comes in to help the locals and is caught up in the mind of a killer. But there were a few intriguing subtleties of the case, akin to a good episode of CSI or Law and Order (except bleaker and more intense, of course).
With captivatingly dark sets and scratchy letters, reminiscent of Se7en, and the music of Phillip Glass combined with striking lead actress, like the recent Twisted, Taking Lives is a beautiful film to watch. Jolie's lips and skin, which occasionally take up the whole screen, make a rich pale pink contrast to the dark blues and blacks of the continually nighttime Montreal. The dark exquisiteness of the horror genre is thickly present in scenes that really made me jump, farther out of my seat than I have in a very long time. Their harshly real depictions of the mutilated bodies were horrid enough to effect a gut reaction, but not quite horrible enough to actually make me feel queasy. This difficult balance was achieved with a bizarre sort of aesthetic pleasantness one might almost desire to call beauty.
None of this saved it.
With the continual action that catching a murderer created, I could almost forget that none of the characters were fully fleshed out. Even the killer, whose head we are supposed to get inside, was surprisingly bland and without much motivation or history. This aided in making the plot twists both more obscure, and yet easy to figure out at the same time. About an hour and a half into the movie, when it seems to be over (and I was sincerely ready for it to be), the story abruptly switches modes. While this twist did genuinely take me by surprise, it wasn't relevant enough to the actual storyline to make me care that I hadn't figured out what was going to happen. Any more minor twists before or after this point were easily discernible. Like last week's Secret Window, the "twist" was both overdone and underdone, making it seem excessively forced and insincere. It is at this time that there is an odd love scene that really felt more cheesily uncomfortable than sexy. Only the slightly bloody morning after at all captured my attention.
While the sets are superb and the acting is decent, don't be fooled by the first few minutes of Taking Lives (9 of which you can actually view online). The deeper you go into the film, the shallower it becomes. As long as you keep sipping the beer on your coffee table as you watch the DVD your state of mind should line up nicely.