Perhaps the most original thing you could say about Taking Lives, the new Angelina Jolie-Ethan Hawke serial killer thriller, is that, for once, an American-made movie has owned up to the fact that it was shot in Canada. In this case, the tight cobblestone alleyways of Old Montreal and towering government castles of Quebec City play themselves. Which lends a surprising amount of novelty to the proceedings, particularly to what amounts to another installment in one of the most overdone genres American film has ever celebrated: they used to make routine westerns, and now it's a rare week that goes by without what I like to call a Staller.
A Staller is simply a stalker movie shifted through the structure of a Hollywood thriller. The last time we saw one of these was, oh, last week: Secret Window. And Twisted the week before that. Ashley Judd is the Queen of the Staller. The term is ideal in that you are merely being stalled on the way to receiving the plot details you've experienced in every other Staller.
Taking Lives delivers its final revelation half an hour before it's done. Which is new (and a bad idea, as the story, having turned over all its cards, grows increasingly loony). Otherwise, Taking Lives, depressingly dutiful and tirelessly mediocre, includes the following Staller must-haves:
w A stylishly murky landscape. In this case, a milieu of grungy apartments and never-cleaned police stations, loaded with shadows and sunlight glowing behind closed blinds. These places are generally so darkly lit it's clear Canadians (or at least the characters in movies like this) never pay their electric bill.
Shame on you Canadians.
(See Seven for more details.)
w Whenever possible the extraneous police, the ones nipping at the heels of our hero or heroine, should be hostile, with as little motivation as possible. Here, Olivier Martinez (the sleazy bookseller from Unfaithful) gets to scowl at Angelia Jolie for no apparent reason. Taking Lives receives extra points for performing this in a French-Canadian accent, although Martinez and few of the French actors in the cast sound truly Quebecois.
w A serial killer with a distinctive style is important. He should kill on an anniversary whenever possible. For reasons unclear, this killer is finally being cornered 20 years after he tested his skills on a young drifter. On a whim, it seems. The 1983 opening is nicely unsettling: a long-faced teen with huge John Lennon specs sizes up his prey, buddies up, then kicks the guy into a truck, covers his tracks, and moves on. The rest tells the story of a man with a talent not unlike the talented Mr. Ripley.
Call this new guy the wily Mr. Mysterious. He kills and absorbs the identity of his victims. Not in a horror movie, soul-eating, shape-shifting way. According to Jolie, he is a hermit crab who changes shells and moves on.
Metaphor firmly established, he's also a human shellfish with an appreciation for personality couture. As long as that personality is attached to a young, blonde man, the murder fits.
(See Se7ven for more details.)
● An actress or actor who has won an Academy Award and never will again is optional but welcome. Angelina Jolie (best supporting actress for Girl, Interrupted; how quickly you forget) plays Illeana Scott, an FBI profiler with seemingly robotic eyes. Why she is working in Canada, I'm not sure. But this woman can stare at you and tell you drank three Diet Cokes a day when you were 17. Although not intuitive enough to steer clear of Beyond Borders and two Lara Croft Tomb Raider movies, she establishes the killer's modus operandi without a shred of evidence. (Note: if said details are handled in a sufficiently chilling manner, all-knowing profilers are fine.)
● There are exactly as many red herrings as there are cast members. (See Se7en for a notable exception.) There are two cast members here who maybe did it: Ethan Hawke plays an art dealer who witnessed the killer's handiwork and worries he's next. Kiefer Sutherland plays someone else I can't tell you about. Then there's Gena Rowlands as the mother of the killer, which establishes a huge gap in logic that ultimately collapses the story: If she is the mother of the still-unidentified killer, why not show her the possible suspects?
Revealing the killer's face, 20 years earlier, does however sharpen your eyes: Could Ethan have grown strapping? Or maybe Kiefer outgrew his inner geek?
● The filmmaker should reveal he went to film school and learned nothing other than how to make movies like the one you are watching. Taking Lives establishes this with a nifty opening credit sequence full of jump cuts and newsprint close-ups, all apparently dragged through mud, then filmed. (See Se7en for more details.) Also, the killer's habit of leaving paper dolls, often filmed against stark shadows, recall that time the director took Animation 143 and only received a B.
For the record, director D.J. Caruso (who tones down a bit from his debut thriller The Salton Sea) attended Pepperdine.
● Finally, a distinct sense of underachieving should be detected in a proper Staller. A Staller is the equivalent of a paid vacation for a movie studio (no effort, large reward). So scenes and performances (Hawke is especially good) and small moments of absorbing detail can suggest a movie less anxious to tread a trampled path. But craftsmanship should instead be employed in the service of utterly ordinary ends. Taking Lives overachieves at underachieving.