Taking Lives. Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by D.J. Caruso. Written by Jon Bokenkamp. Based on the novel by Michael Pye. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence including disturbing images, language and some sexuality). Starring Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands, Olivier Martinez, Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Hughes Anglade.

Taking Lives

Taking Lives is a special kind of movie. It's the kind that relies more on atmosphere and mood than plot to be effective. It's the kind in which plausibility doesn't really matter because that isn't the point - getting caught up in the action is. It doesn't matter if where it goes doesn't make sense, because it's the trip to that ultimate destination that counts. Judging by this criteria, Taking Lives is really pretty effective.

Angelina Jolie, in her best performance in quite a while, is Illeana Scott, an FBI agent sent to Montreal to investigate a recent series of grisly murders. James Costa (Ethan Hawke), an awkward art dealer, witnesses one of the murders and is taken in for questioning. He puts them on the trail of Martin Asher (Kiefer Sutherland), a highly disturbed man thought to have been killed twenty years earlier.

For years, Asher has been killing men, each progressively older than the next, and taking their lives. Not stealing thier identities, simply doing their jobs and living in their homes. The police get Costa to help in their investigation, acting as bait for the killer. And, of course, Scott starts to fall for Costa, which may interfere with her judgement of the case.

The thing I like most about Taking Lives is that it isn't typical of the thriller genre. It's more about Scott's development than who the killer really is, so most twists that are thrown out seem less like machinations of the plot than simple developments. In fact, the Big Twist actually isn't really that big, and it is handled in such an unsensational manner that it hardly seems like a twist at all. It's also perfectly believable in the context of the plot, which is a nice change of pace. There are no big action scenes (the car chase is short and to the point), and very few blatant clichés.

Taking Lives's atmosphere is another one of its strengths. It isn't as downbeat as, say, Se7en, but it's plenty dark, which is a nice change of pace. There are a number of stylistic touches that, instead of feeling flashy and overwhelming, are effective, including the opening credits sequence, and several different boo! moments made me jump out of my seat.

Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke shine. Jolie, who has done literally nothing of note since winning an oscar since Girl, Interrupted, is simply great. Her character starts out cold, but as the film progresses she becomes more and more loose; Jolie makes the change believable and fun to watch. But Hawke runs away with the movie and never comes back. He inhabits his seemingly simple role, exploring every facet of Costa's personality and giving a performance of surprising depth. Kiefer Sutherland, so wonderful on 24, shows up for about three minutes and gets third billing. Other supporting performances include Olivier Martinez and Tchéky Karyo as two Canadian police officers, neither of who are given much to do.

The ending of Taking Lives is a preposterous mess, a cheat and a cop-out. It doesn't make any thematic sense, and it ends things on a rosy note which is entirely unearned. I left the theater angry, but on the way home my annoyance had dissipated. I'm not sure why, but by the time I sat down to write this review, I had largely forgiven the film for its problems. There's something to be said for that.

© 2004 Matt Noller