Taking Lives is a 2004 thriller from director D.J. Caruso starring Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke, loosely based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Michael Pye. The reason I opted to watch this recently is because a friend of mine said “Hey, I watched this movie Taking Lives the other day and it wasn’t too bad.” I will concur with my friend’s assessment that Taking Lives is “not too bad.” I will add, however, that it’s not too good either. There was a reason I hadn’t really heard about this movie until twelve years after its release; there is no real passion in this movie, nothing to make it really resonate beyond the 90 minutes it takes to watch.
Director D.J. Caruso has worked done these sorts of genre thrillers before, though nothing he’s done since can, in my opinion, top his 2002 film, The Salton Sea. The other thrillers he’s done, such as Taking Lives, Disturbia, and Eagle Eye are simply functional. I can’t say that I hate them, because I was entertained for the duration of the film, even overcoming how salty I was about Disturbia being a quasi-remake of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. However, none of these movies are fondly remembered today. They were profitable at the moment, but now sit with average scores on imdb.com and maybe get an occasional airing on a cable channel some afternoon.
Taking Lives begins with a young boy named Martin Asher (Paul Dano) who, while traveling north, murders a fellow traveler and assumes their identity. Twenty years later, we learn that Asher has continued this, he’s “taking lives” by murdering people and assuming their identity. After his most recent murder, in Montreal, FBI Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) is called in to profile their killer and assist with the investigation. During the course of these events, Scott falls for one of the witnesses, and potential next victim of Asher, James Costas (Ethan Hawke). Beyond that set-up, the film is a cut-and-paste serial-killer thriller/police procedural.
Ethan Hawke has said of Taking Lives, “I did this Angelina Jolie horror film thinking it would be a big hit and it was terrible.” The movie has a disappoint 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes where critics have said “If you can buy the pillow-lipped Angelina Jolie as a psychic FBI agent in Montreal to hunt a serial killer, then you can swallow the other implausibilities in this retread thriller” (Peter Travers. Rolling Stone), and “Nosedive it does, abandoning all pretense of style and eccentricity for at-times laughable predictability” (Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post). My problem with the movie is that there is nothing tangible in this movie; there is no real theme or character development beyond a handful of predictable plot points. Taking Lives is very formulaic, and doesn’t offer anything beyond that formula. There is simply marketability with a complete lack of ambition.
Take another movie about an FBI profiler, The Silence of the Lambs as a for instance. What made that film work was the focus placed on its characters and how they interacted with each other. We learned a lot about Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins characters and saw how their actions stemmed from what we knew of them. As a result, The Silence of the Lambs is highly regarded to this day. Good thrillers, the ones we remember as far back as when Hitchcock consistently scored top marks, retain this focus on character and theme, not formula. With Taking Lives, we learn almost nothing about the characters onscreen. Angelina Jolie is an FBI profiler that is good at her job; it’s not possible to develop a character arc around that. As such, what motivation is there for the audience to remember. There is nothing significant in the film to connect its material to the audience. Taking Lives is about competence, not excellence. It is about doing the bare minimum needed to get butts into seats and nothing else. There is no attempt to create a lasting impression in the minds of those viewers.
Director D.J. Caruso has dedicated more than functionality to some projects. His 2013 adaptation of the YA novel Standing Up was a long-time passion project of his. As a result, the film is well-remembered by fans and critics. According to imdb.com, however, D.J. Caruso is directing XXX: Return of Xander Cage and is rumored to be attached to G.I. Joe 3. Neither of these are going to be hallmark films in a director’s portfolio, they won’t be examples of an artist’s creative vision, they will be cookie-cutter, formulaic, and not terribly memorable. I am sure that D.J. Caruso entered the business with more than a desire to make money. In Hollywood, however, those moments where a director can express themselves are few and far between.
Once upon a time film directors did have the ability to express themselves creatively in Hollywood. That reached an apogee with the era of “New Hollywood,” when studios threw money at directors, trusting them to make the movie they wanted to make. A few notably bad investments ended that practice, leading to cookie-cutter movies such as Taking Lives. There is opportunity for a director to take risks, to try new things and make the movie they want. But Hollywood does not want ambition, they want security. It’s better to make a bland, non-threatening, film that hits the comfortable tropes and has familiar faces in it. So, alas, D.J. Caruso ends up just being a victim of Hollywood conformity – unable to make something truly expressive, despite the fact that he is capable of it.