When we first see Special Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) in "Taking Lives," she's lying in a grave. She explains to the pair of French-Canadian detectives who've found her there that she's trying to determine the exact nature of the murders they're investigating. The two men have the same look: Oui, mademoiselle, but why are you smiling? Well, boys, she's Angelina Jolie, and she just wants to freak you out.
It's a minor relief to know that, after a pair of preposterous love stories and a second forgettable stint as the tomb-raiding archeologist Lara Croft, Jolie is safely back in the arms of another murky-kinky piece of Hollywood trash. There was some doubt cast about whether she'd be able to top the inane window-fogger "Original Sin," in which Antonio Banderas knew Jolie was trying to kill him but couldn't stop having sex with her anyway. "Taking Lives" operates on a similarly stupid premise that, respectful of those who live for smutty rubbish, I won't disclose. But this is easily the ghastlier and, to some extent, more predictable movie: You know who the killer is the moment he appears. Heck, you'll know by a quick look at the trailer.
Jolie plays a super-serious American FBI profiler, who wears expensive, flattering shirts and has been lured up to Montreal to help catch a serial killer. Her services come over the objection of Paquette, a pouty, insensitive rogue played by Olivier Martinez. (The good cop in the relationship is Jean-Hugues Anglade's Duval.) Yet, if only Paquette could see how Scott lives for her work, taking her meals seated across the table from grisly crime scene photos and taping yet more pictures to the ceiling above her bed.
Her devotion to her job is ridiculous, but it gets her and her Canadian crew ever closer to the bottom of the case, which is kicked into high gear when the investigation turns up Jimmy Costa (Ethan Hawke), an art dealer and Nova Scotian who says he witnessed the latest murder. Costa is drawn inevitably to Scott. Eventually, she discloses to him that the gold band on her ring finger is a decoy and almost quits the case because she, too, is drawn to him. And as the presumable killer nears, the two grow closer. And closer. Until Hawke and Jolie embark on some of the sloppiest kissing and wholehearted trysting this side of Adult Cinemax.
It should go without saying that sex is what Agent Scott needed to induce her giggling and spontaneity. Imagine what a different movie "The Silence of the Lambs" would have been if Agent Starling was seeing someone other than Dr. Lechter. (Imagine Dr. Lechter's response.)
"Taking Lives" would not be possible without that movie or without David Fincher's "Se7en." As the imitations still proliferate, one develops an appreciation of the way Fincher's movie, in particular, squeezed a fashionably apocalyptic mood into a clever structure.
"Taking Lives" wants to make you jump, which on two or three occasions it does, but those moments aren't fastened to anything more than the wish to jolt you. We never learn why our killer kills. We never learn what makes our federal huntress tick. The answers to these questions are probably in Michael Pye's 1999 novel, which seemed a brisk riff on Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and the works of Patricia Highsmith. However, the adaptation is such a radical departure from Pye's book that it's as though screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp used a recipe for apple pie to make meatloaf.
Because the characters in the movie have only stock obsessions and vague personal histories, there's no reason to be interested in them. And the movie, which D.J. Caruso has directed as a collection of sequences that grow in nonsense and luridness, doesn't bring out the psycho-schlock needed to work as a transcendently bad thriller. The gruesome last sequence, set in an idyllic Pennsylvania farmhouse, is the sort of tasteless moviemaking that debases far more than it transcends.
The serial-killer thriller is a genre that officially has nowhere else to go and nothing else to say. And "Taking Lives" is so lifeless and beside the point that its DVD version should skip letterboxing and just be shown in a heavy chalk outline.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.