(director: D.J. Caruso; screenwriters: Jon Bokenkamp/based on the novel by Michael Pye; cinematographer: Amir Mokri; editor: Anne V. Coates; music: Philip Glass; cast: Angelina Jolie (Illeana Scott), Ethan Hawke (James Costa), Kiefer Sutherland (Hart), Olivier Martinez (Joseph Paquette), Tchéky Karyo (Leclair), Jean-Hugues Anglade (Duval), Gena Rowlands (Mrs. Asher); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mark Canton/Bernie Goldmann; Warner Brothers; 2004)

“Caruso succeeds in giving Taking Lives the necessary dark feel and just enough of a drawn out character development needed for a thinking man’s thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

D.J. Caruso (“The Salton Sea”) directs a smart thriller that follows the rules of the genre involving an F.B.I. profiler trailing a serial killer. We know we are on familiar terra firma when the serial killer, who specializes in mutilating his victims and then assuming their names and identities, tells the Special Agent “We’re the same.” The script is by Jon Bokenkamp; it is adapted from the novel by Michael Pye.

Caruso sets up the eccentric profiler Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) with some unusual ways of operating and combines that with colorful tracking shots of the killer being hunted in Montreal. The cast works well together (no one steals scenes from the other) and there’s a nervous edge to the growing crimes. But, alas, the film’s good deeds begin to fade as the third act gets caught up in the obligatory twists expected from this genre and the film leaves its carefully worn suspense story to become ultimately too excessive–even for the thriller genre with an edge.

Believing that a serial killer is operating in Montreal and that his police department is not getting anywhere in their investigation, suave police chief LeClair (Tcheky Karyo) calls his old friend the top-rated FBI profiler Illeana Scott to help. She meets the other officers working the case when they find her lying in the grave at a construction site where the last body was recovered. This unorthodox approach enables Illeana to conclude that the crime was premeditated, the killer is a meticulous person who dug the grave beforehand and wanted the body to be discovered, and that he gets a thrill by coming up from behind his victims to strangle them. That she’s both a woman and an outsider angers the veteran Montreal investigating team of the excitable, unshaven Paquette (Oliver Martinez) and his more even-tempered partner Duval (Jean-Hughes Anglade).

The story builds on Illeana’s obsession with solving the case, comparing it with the killer’s obsessions for details in his murderous acts. She dines in her hotel room with the pictures of the victims’ battered corpses tacked on the ceiling. Illeana soon discovers the killer is responsible for probably around 19 unsolved killings over a period of about 20 years and that he assumes the identity of each victim until he needs a new identity. The audience was already made aware of this, as in the first scene the psycho named Martin Asher kills another young man by pushing him in front of an on-coming truck and then assuming his identity. That his real name is Martin Asher and he had an identical twin brother who died in childhood, and was the good twin his upset mother (Gena Rowlands) adored, are all the clues Illeana is able to uncover. Upon talking to Martin’s crabby mom, Illeana further discovers that mom is positive she recently spotted her supposedly dead Martin–she says she would know his eyes anywhere despite not seeing him for 19 years. It soon becomes apparent that he faked his death and is definitely the serial killer they are after. Though Rowlands only has a cameo, it was memorable–it’s just great seeing her perform again.

Illeana explains to the other investigators that the killer is a “hermit crab” who keeps discarding his shell for a new one.

A break comes their way when a jittery and breathless witness to a brutal murder, where the man victim has his face smashed by a rock, is apprehended by the police as he is hunched over the body and trying to revive it. He’s questioned by the police but since he passes all Illeana’s tests for detecting a serial killer, he’s released. James Costa (Ethan Hawke) is a sensitive art dealer, who draws a picture of the suspect and easily gets talked into being bait to catch the perp–which qualifies him to get protective custody and have Illeana at his side. That he’s being so helpful immediately raises the suspicions of those who are fans of this genre. Costa acts weird, but Illeana develops a strange attraction for him even though she’s still suspicious.

Caruso introduces a mysterious stranger (Kiefer Sutherland) seen spying in the shadows of doorways, and he seems to be connected somehow to Costa as homosexual ties are hinted at. This stranger becomes a possible suspect, and when the twists start happening he’s suspected of being Martin Asher.

This is a strong role for Jolie — it was especially written for her and she was the first to come aboard the project. After a string of brutally bad flicks from 1999 on, she gives her finest performance since her Oscar win for “Girl, Interrupted.” It is slightly ruined by the filmmaker not resisting to show off her sex appeal, as there’s an obligatory tit shot and other shots of her in compromised positions–all those actions take away a bit from her credibility as a police officer. Despite an effort to show her as brainy, that attempt is wiped out in the later stages of the story as she becomes ditsy. It was not enough to ruin the film completely, but it put a damper on my enthusiasm. But, overall, I thought Caruso succeeds in giving Taking Lives the necessary dark feel and just enough of a drawn out character development needed for a thinking man’s thriller.

REVIEWED ON 3/23/2004 GRADE: B-    https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/