A top FBI profiler, Special Agent Illeana Scott (Academy Award-winner Angelina Jolie) doesn’t rely on traditional crime-solving techniques to unravel the mysteries of a murderous mind. Her intuitive, unconventional approach often makes the crucial difference between catching a killer and sending a dead-end case to the cold file.
When Montreal detectives handling a local homicide investigation reluctantly ask for an outsider’s help to get inside the head of a cunning serial killer, Agent Scott joins the case. With meticulous insight, she theorizes that the chameleon-like killer is “life-jacking” assuming the lives and identities of his victims.
As the pressure mounts to catch the elusive murderer, Agent Scott’s unorthodox methods alienate her from a territorial police team that feels threatened by her uncanny abilities. Her seemingly cold demeanor belies an unparalleled passion for her work, and she’s at her best when she’s working alone. But when an unexpected attraction sparks a complicated romantic entanglement, the consummate specialist begins to doubt her finely-honed instincts.
Alone in an unfamiliar city with no one she can trust, Agent Scott suddenly finds herself on a twisted and terrifying journey, surrounded by suspects in a case that has become chillingly personal.
“I’m intrigued with the notion of identity – who we are and who we think we are,” says director D.J. Caruso, citing one of the principle themes in Taking Lives, a psychological thriller that pits the expertise of an FBI profiler against the equally expert but twisted mentality of a serial killer.
This is a killer who not only takes the lives of his victims but bizarrely assumes their identities, using their credit cards and living in their homes for weeks or months before moving on to the next target. “He’s life-jacking,” says Caruso, offering a term he coined while preparing for the project. “Not only does this guy, in his mind, become you, but he imagines he’s living your life better than you would potentially live it, and that’s part of his enjoyment.”
From the story’s opening moments, when a body is discovered near a Montreal construction site, it’s clear that this is not a standard murder case. Something about the vicious and ritualistic nature of the crime indicates to local police director Hugo Leclair that he may be dealing with a serial killer, and that prompts him to call on Special Agent Illeana Scott, an FBI profiler, for help. It’s not that he doesn’t trust his own detectives to solve the case; it’s just that tracking such monsters is Agent Scott’s specialty. And if her methods seem a bit peculiar to his staff, so what? What better way to catch an unconventional criminal?While Taking Lives delivers all the visceral impact audiences expect from a first-class thriller, it also explores a number of deeper and often surprising elements of personality and motive, leading Caruso to muse that “it’s not so much a who-dunnit as a why-dunnit. The way the case must be solved is by figuring out the reasons for the killer’s behavior, finding his point of view, and from that, ultimately, discovering who he is.”
“We live in dangerous times and certainly this movie operates on that level, stirs that sense of prickly terror,” says producer Mark Canton, from a perspective spanning more than 20 years as a senior studio executive, filmmaker and fan. “But it also touches on ideas about childhood, alienation and rejection, themes that develop in a person’s life at a very early age and how childhood fantasies sometimes manifest themselves in powerful and destructive ways. As a parent, I find that particularly fascinating. It’s an intelligent story, a smart person’s thriller.”
“You’re never quite sure where the story or the characters are going,” adds producer Bernie Goldmann, like his colleagues a longtime fan of the artfully constructed thriller. “You’re not sure what their back-stories are or their motivations and why they choose to tell people certain things. It’s a lot like life.”
Screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp (Preston Tylk), who adapted the script from the Michael Pye novel, emphasizes strong characterizations as the story’s backbone. “What I loved about Michael’s book was the unique nature of the killer. It makes you wonder, what drives him? What is he hiding from? Thematically, it’s about feeling uncomfortable in your own skin.” It doesn’t hurt that Bokenkamp is fully in his element here. “I love thrillers,” he offers unabashedly. “A good thriller is like a math problem; the answers are there all along, you just have to work them out.”
As Special Agent Illeana Scott, Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie is first seen onscreen lying flat on her back in a freshly opened grave. From this macabre perspective, she then emerges with a number of specific and accurate details, not only about the grave’s former occupant but about the man who put him there: “The killer chose this site specifically, dug it in advance. The corners are neat, symmetrical, the proportions precise,” she observes, also deducing from these details the victim’s height and the likelihood that he was a regular cyclist on the nearby bike path.
As Canton points out, “Agent Scott has her specific methodology and process but, at the same time, the killer is a very smart person who has his own ability, in effect, to profile. This is a man who has spent a great deal of time examining the lives of his victims, learning their habits, so that he can successfully step into their lives. The more involved she gets with the investigation, the more she leaves herself vulnerable.”
The element of vulnerability especially appealed to Jolie, who notes that, “often in films you see the woman from the FBI and she’s cool and tough, never a hesitation. But this woman isn’t like that. She’s strong and intelligent but also very human. She’s flawed. There are secrets in her past. She has what D.J. calls ‘her Chinatown .’
“She is a profiler and is therefore extremely sensitive. I did a lot of research on profilers and the work they do, and I find there’s something very sensual about them. They watch everything from the way people move their hands and feet to what they say and why they do things in a specific manner. They’re acute observers, which makes this a very interesting part to play.”
Jolie was the filmmakers’ first choice, the undisputed front-runner for the role, which requires a blend of intensity and objectivity, strength and vulnerability and, as Canton notes, “the ability to be absolutely forthright in her professional dealings and at the same time completely mysterious about her personal life. Angelina is brilliant. She has thrown herself into this role from day one.”
Crediting the subtlety of certain scenes for allowing images and conversations to take hold in the imagination, Jolie notes that “sometimes these quiet little scenes of a couple of people sitting around having coffee are actually about so much more. The relationships are quite intricate. I loved the script.”
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Olivier Martinez, Gena Rowlands
Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Screenplay by: David Ayer, Jon Bokenk
Release Date: March 19th, 2004
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence including disturbing images, language, sexuality.
Box Office: $32,682,342 (US total)
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Related Link: Taking Lives on Movies Central