So once again we have survived.

Taking Lives

tn_takinglivesI don’t watch these twisty suspense thrillers too often, but they can be fun. I honestly don’t know what drew me to TAKING LIVES right now, but the only thing I knew about it other than that it stars BY THE SEA director Angelina Jolie is a really absurd thing that happens at the end that somebody told me about back when it came out. That turns out to be the best part of the movie, but I guess it’s okay I had it spoiled 11 years ago because otherwise I don’t think I would’ve watched it. There is no scenario where I see this fresh. It’s kind of like how I saw both SEVEN POUNDS and ORPHAN only because their plot twists sounded funny. Not that this is as good as those, but I enjoyed it okay.

Extra-hot-late-twenties Jolie plays Agent Illeanna Scott, an FBI profiler who has come to Canada to help Hugo Leclair (Tchéky Karyo), her mentor from Quantico, catch a serial killer. You know the drill: she’s totally brilliant, she has odd habits (like she lays inside a grave to get closer to the crime), she looks at gory photos while eating, she comes up with theories based on tiny details and everybody looks at her in either awe or fear. Olivier Martinez (BEFORE NIGHT FALLS) plays a cop who doesn’t trust or respect her, and he gets to be the bearer of that cliche that if you say something insulting in front of someone in another language thinking they don’t understand it then for sure they will play along and later say something to you in that language to reveal that they are fluent and then you will be embarrassed and not know what to say.

This killer attacks people and bashes their heads in with rocks. We first see this in an impressive 1983 prologue about two young guys who meet on a bus trip. Clearly one of these kids is gonna kill the other one, but one of the kids is Paul Dano, so you don’t know which of his rules it’s gonna follow:

a) he always plays a creepo

b) he always gets his face beat in

mp_takinglivesAnyway, one of the kids – either Dano or Justin Chatwin, the son who controversially doesn’t die in WAR OF THE WORLDS – grows up to be this inscrutable killer who they figure out picks victims who he can steal the identity of. I guess they are people isolated from any family or friends and non-descript looking maybe, I don’t know. It seems like there would be no way to do that, but then I’m not a serial killer or a person who gets into the minds of serial killers by laying in graves, so I haven’t put any thought into how to work it. This guy has and he’s been getting away with it.

Nobody knows what he looks like, but they find a guy near one of the murder sites who claims to have seen him, and that guy is art dealer James Costa, played by Ethan Hawke (BOYHOOD, PREDESTINATION). They’re suspicious, but if he’s a liar he’s a good one, because he convinces Agent Scott. He’s goofball Ethan Hawke, terrified when the Montreal police want to use him as bait for the killer, who they think wants to meet with him, and who we might be seeing stalking him in the form of  scary Kiefer Sutherland (MIRRORS). There is an obvious attraction between Scott and Costa, which almost causes Scott to head home, believing it will hurt her judgment.

Meanwhile Scott follows the trail, looking into all the victims, questioning why he does things the way he does, etc. But the biggest one falls into her lap: the mother of the kid in the prologue (Gena Rowlands) comes to the police saying she just saw her son even though she thought he died all those years ago. She says he was dangerous. Is dangerous.

Scott sees lots of photos of the son. We can’t tell from them which actor they’d be a young representation of. Plus we learn about a twin brother who died. Plus there’s a grave exhumed and a dark secret involving a dungeon-like BAD RONALD room with weird clues in it. Yep, that proves it. We have a thriller all right. I mean, either the twin or the secret dungeon would’ve been enough. Both equals an open and shut case.

This is based on a book by Michael Pye, but it sounds like they mostly just used the opening scene and the gimmick of a killer who “takes the lives” of the people he takes the lives of. If Agent Scott or equivalent FBI agent is in the book she is not mentioned in Wikipedia’s summary. In tone and look and feel this is very much what you expect in a pulpy serial killer thriller (especially if this had been made in the ’90s), but it’s pretty well executed. Director D.J. Caruso had gotten some attention for THE SALTON SEA, and this eased him into his version of slick studio thrillers like DISTURBIA, EAGLE EYE and I AM NUMBER FOUR.

One kinda highbrow touch he brings to this: the score is by the brilliant “major minimalist” composer Philip Glass. I thought that was a pretty big “get” for a mainstream movie like this, but I was just looking him up on IMDb and he worked on the new FANTASTIC FOUR, so maybe just nobody asks him. Anyway, it’s cool that they did ask him, he gives it a very different feel.

Now let’s discuss the ending. I am telling you right now I’m gonna give it away, so don’t tell me that I didn’t tell you right now that I’m gonna give it away. SPOILERS. It turns out that fucking Ethan Hawke really is Martin Asher, the son of that lady, and therefore the killer. And that’s a real bummer because not only did Scott fuck up and have the killer right under her nose and not figure out it’s him and let him get away, but she also fell for him and had sex with him, a huge professional embarrassment. So she’s fired from the FBI. Fair enough. Accountability.

Now it’s 7 months later and she’s out in rural Pennsylvania living all by herself. Alone. Disgraced. Pregnant. Well, shit.

Then one day Asher shows up inside her house, starts taunting her, chasing her around, telling her how he’s been watching her and all this shit. Knows it’s his kid, that it’s twins, because it runs in the family. Then they fight… and he takes a pair of scissors and he stabs her in the belly! Oh jesus, that’s fucked up!

Then she pulls the scissors out of herself and stabs him with them. And she stands up and pulls off her fake pregnant belly. Some Mission: Impossible shit. She knew he’d be watching and faked 7 months of pregnancy to lure him in. He always killed men before, so she doesn’t fit the profile of his victims at all, but I guess she knew he’d make an exception for the mother of his children, just as he did for the mother of himself. So she really pulled an elaborate ruse here. I bet she had different sized fake bellies. I bet she even went to lamaze classes and stuff. Did pregnant lady yoga. She went hard and she fooled him. Classic Illeanna Scott.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, November 12th, 2015 at 2:32 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Taking Lives”

  1. I saw this back in theaters and hated it, and it still for some reason stands out to me as a notably terrible movie. But I haven’t seen it since then, and the memory is fading.

    What I remember most clearly is that Sutherland and Martinez have completely thankless, pointless, red-herring roles that bring the movie to a halt every time they are onscreen. And that the killer is immediately obvious, even though the movie tries extra super-duper hard to try to trick you.

  2. Yeah I remember this is nowhere as good as I wanted it to be, since the twist was kind of obvious, and that the sex scene was ok but no Original Sin, and I guess I’ll have to watch this again because I love everything Phillip Glass-related and didn’t know he did the score to this. (I’ve listened to his score (cowritten by Marco Beltrami) for Fantastic Four and it’s depressingly generic, like the type of bombastic blockbuster wannabe-Dark Knight score you’d hear in a fake parody trailer).

    Also I think I remember there’s two cuts of Taking Lives, one with a slightly longer sex scene and severed Gena Rowlands head, one where her head isn’t severed to keep it classy. I did rewatch Caruso’s Salton Sea recently and Vern, if you haven’t seen it recently, you’d love it. Lots of energy and a great mega-acting performance by Vincent D’onofrio. (Also I hope this comment goes through because I can’t see the captcha on the submit page even though i’ve tried different browsers)

  3. *SPOILER*

    When you said that Hawke’s character was a witness that was getting pulled in to the investigation I thought, “Hmm, that’s suspicious.” Then when you said there was an attraction between them I thought, “Oh, shit. He’s the bad guy. She’s going to sleep with him and he’s the bad guy.” Newsflash, Hollywood, this is no longer a twist. Anyone who’s seen a movie ever in their lifetime knows this is how it’s going to play out. Stop using it.

  4. 2 things re neal2zod’s comment –

    1. D’onofrio displays a level of weirdness in SALTON SEA that makes Kilmer seem like a regular guy. And, just when you thought you’d seen it all, along comes that JFK assassination re-enactment.
    2. ORIGINAL SIN sex scene – loses points for Banderas’ saggy butt getting in the way of the good bits, gains points for the level of enthusiasm and willingness employed by Ms Jolie.

    Re TAKING LIVES – I used to have a challenge on my hands with my ex-wife every time we’d pick a movie to watch since she didn’t like thrillers and gore all that much. I discovered this on our first date when I took her to see GOODFELLAS (which I’d seen once before), and in the opening scene, as Pesci and DeNiro stab and shoot Billy Batts in the trunk of the car, she turned to me in shock and said “You’re kidding, right?”

    Cut to roughly ten years later and many movie compromises along the way, like a good husband would do (fuck THE NOTEBOOK and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE for all eternity), I somehow convinced her to watch TAKING LIVES. All was well until that knife in the belly scene, AND THEN SHE BURST INTO TEARS! Well fuck, now I felt like a right prick. I tried to calm her down by pointing out it wasn’t real on two counts – 1. It was just a movie. And 2. She was faking being pregnant. But no, it struck a chord with her maternal instincts and whatnot, and it was back to fucking MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE hell for the next five years. I’m such a dick.

  5. I haven’t seen this since it came out but I have fond memories of it. I was 18 and topless Angelina was a big deal. Plus I was a big fan of 24 and was happy to see Kiefer Sutherland although I was bummed that his role wasn’t more important. The world needs more Jack Bauer in it.

    That and the part where the elevator opens on (SPOILER) Ethan Hawke standing there holding Gina Rowland’s severed head. That was pretty startling at the time.

    Overall not the greatest movie. But I saw it once 11 years ago and a few bits still stick with me so it’s got that going for it.

  6. I don’t know that it’s been remarked upon, but Vern’s use of an actor’s less distinguished projects as reference points always cracks me up. Keifer Sutherland, can’t place him … oh, yeah, the guy from Mirrors!

  7. I watched this on DVD once back in when it came out because I heard Jolie showed her breasts and even though I had already seen them in GIA well, I was 14 or so and any opportunity to see Jolie’s breasts was an opportunity I took, but I remember literally nothing else, I’m not even sure I watched the whole thing (though the “fake pregnant belly” does sound familiar.)

    But man, I remember the first time I saw GIA like it was yesterday, it was like seeing the face of God (and it’s actually a pretty good movie too, unlike TAKING LIVES).

  8. I’m a blind DVD buyer. (When a movie seems cool and is available for a few bucks, I just buy it.) This is the only blind buy in my collection, that was a waste of the 3 or 4 bucks that I spent on it.
    People keep recommending me THE SALTON SEA, but considering that everything I saw from DJ Caruso was awful, I really have no intention to watch it. To me, he is even worse than Stephen Sommers. At least Sommers directed the fun b-movie that was DEEP RISING! What has Caruso ever done! I also suspect that he isn’t even a DJ! #RealDJing

  9. CJ – That’s what’s maddening about Caruso! THE SALTON SEA was a lot of fun! Different from and so much better than anything else he’s ever done. Very, very lively, fleet movie full of a murderer’s row of character actors doing little bits. But I can’t blame you for not watching it. If I’d seen his other stuff first, I wouldn’t be excited for it either.

  10. I second the love for THE SALTON SEA. That movie was actually a nice surprise back then. I can’t say that I feel bad that I haven’t seen anything by DJ Caruso since but from the sound of it I am actually pretty lucky it seems.

    It also seemed like Val was going through a bit of a renaissance back then because shortly after he did WONDERLAND, SPARTAN and KISS KISS BANG BANG which were all stand out efforts on his resume. Then he got fat and stopped giving a damn again.

  11. AnimalRamirez1976

    November 13th, 2015 at 8:43 am

    The fake pregnancy is easily the dumbest twist I have ever of.

  12. I just read the twist since I generally avoid Jolie movies like the plague so I never saw this.

    That shit sounds fucking hilarious! off to youtube land I go to find the clip.

  13. I recall when this came out my first and last thought about the film was, “Wow, they’re still making these, huh?”

    And that ending is exactly the kind of twist I used to see in dopey spec thrillers all the time.

  14. Caruso also directed some episodes of THE SHIELD as well.

  15. Co-sign on Salton Sea. It’s dope. Trippy neo-noir thing going on. Noseless D’Onofrio? Val Kilmer getting his quirk on? What more can you ask for? I miss Val Kilmer being in good movies. He’s a weirdo in the best sense of the word.

    I remember thinking Taking Lives was pretty dumb. The whole profiler tracking serial killers police procedural thing has been pretty well played-out since the mid-90s. It’s such a specific and stereotyped narrative form that it takes some real inspiration to come up with a fresh take. It’s not as broad a genre as, say, “zombie film,” “western,” or “gangster film,” where each of those is really a general milieu that can be inhabited by all kinds of characters and mined for all kinds of stories (take Ravenous for example). The serial killer procedural is a much narrow genre, and is not so much a milieu as a pretty formulaic and at this point cliched set of story beats. I don’t think it’s impossible to do something fresh and good w/ the serial killer genre (I think Minus Man is the last one I really dug), but it’s pretty difficult, and for such a narrow and stereotyped class of antagonist and plot, a film has got to deliver a lot more than Taking Lives to justify its existence.

  16. caruso_stalker217

    November 13th, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    I remember really liking THE SALTON SEA whenever it was I saw it, eight or ten years ago. I was into that neo-noir shit like MEMENTO and ROMEO IS BLEEDING. It may have been the genesis of my brief love affair with the acting of Peter Sarsgaard, who seemed to be in everything 10-12 years ago and has worked consistently since then yet I haven’t seen him in forever.

    TAKING LIVES is really shit, by the way. Just the most run-of-the-mill vanilla-assed mediocre garbage.

  17. I saw TAKING LIVES knowing nothing about it except that it supposedly contained some ludicrous twist. So when there’s a fiery car wreck and Ethan Hawke climbs out but Kiefer Sutherland dies, I decided that Sutherland had actually killed Hawke and was hiding inside his skin, HELLRAISER-style. A couple scenes later Jolie finds that she’s got blood smeared all over her because the stitching down Hawke’s arm burst while they were having sex, and man, I was sure that was confirmation. I’m still disappointed it didn’t work out that way. The fake pregnancy was humdrum in comparison.

    There’s a scene at the police station where the Montreal cops are listing the previous victims on a bulletin board, and after the name of each city and province where a murder took place, they’ve written “Canada.” I got a kick out of that.

  18. when this came out for some reason i became obsessed with the idea that pretending it was called “ta king lives” (as in like… “the king lives”) was the funniest joke ever and i would say to people “oh look theres the poster for that new movie Ta King Lives! and laugh to myself like a fucking moron.

  19. That reminds me of how my friends and I kept jokingly reading the name of 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS as if it was written in German. (“Zwei fast zwei furios”, which you can translate back into English as “Two almost two fantastic”)

  20. I did likewise for the STEP UP 2 THE STREETS poster, which was laid out so it seemed to read STEP UP THE STREETS 2. “But I never saw STEP UP THE STREETS 1!” I would say, to the hilarity of no one.

  21. Since we are talking about lame jokes involving movies posters, back in the days I had from a classroom window a great view onto a mall across the street. On the outside were two fucking huge banners hanging. One for MATRIX REVOLUTIONS and another one for the first DVD release of THE LION KING.

    When my teacher caught me staring out of the window and asked me why I didn’t pay attention, I simply replied: “I think I uncovered a conspiracy to bring the monarchy back to Germany” and pointed at the two banners that said together: “The revolution begins! The king returns!” She smiled a little while she groaned. (That sentence sounded less sexual in my head.)

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