Taking Lives (2004) is a serial killer thriller starring Angelina Jolie as FBI Agent Ileana Scott. The film also stars Ethan Hawke, and Kiefer Sutherland.
Here’s the premise: An insidious serial killer is impersonating his victims’ identities as he travels across Canada. A recent spate of murders in Montreal has brought an FBI profiler lleana Scott north to investigate. Scott’s unusual methods quickly earn the suspicion of the local police but bring her close to art dealer James Costa, who says he was an eyewitness to the latest murder. Sparks develop between the two as Costa’s role becomes crucial in their effort to apprehend the killer.
I didn’t want my review of Taking Lives to repeat my usual critiques of serial killer movies. Instead, during the recording of a case review with retired FBI profiler Mark Safarik, who has served as a consultant for TV shows, movies, and crime novels, I asked him a few questions about specific scenes. Here’s an (edited) excerpt from our conversation.
Me: So, have you seen Taking Lives?
Mark Safarik: I started watching it, and then part way through, I just had to stop. Sometimes I just throw my hands up at these law enforcement movies because I just can’t watch them, especially if they involve profilers.
Me: In the opening scenes of Taking Lives, we learn that Agent Scott has been invited to Canada to help work on a serial murder case. Can you talk about the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit’s (BAU) work overseas?
Mark Safarik: I’ve worked cases in Brazil, Ireland, South Africa, Morocco, and Canada. I’ve worked cases all over and it’s essentially the same dynamic. The agency would contact a legal attaché that covers their country, and the FBI’s legal attaché contacts the behavioral unit and makes a request for assistance.
So sure, we work cases in Canada. However, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police both have really excellent behavioral profiling units. It would be unlikely that they would ask us for assistance unless it was something very, very specific. They would have a RCMP criminal profiler, working on their cases because they can testify and they know the ins and outs of the Canadian legal system, whereas FBI profilers would not. Primarily, we work in countries that don’t have profilers.
Me: In Taking Lives, Agent Scott definitely exhibits some rather quirky or just plain weird behaviors. When the Angelina Jolie character first appears on the screen, she’s laying in a grave.
Mark Safarik: When I’m conducting my analysis, I have a procedure and methodology for doing it. Angelina Jolie’s character wants to lie down in the grave. Now that’s just stupid, right? But it probably looks good on television. I’ve never laid down in a grave before. Instead, I have crime scene photographs of the grave and of the excavation. It’s not laying down in graves and getting a feeling or touching crime scene photos and all of a sudden having some sort of mystical thing happen.
It’s not ouija board stuff. It’s not crystal ball stuff. It’s really intense academic analysis with a lot of training and experience. That’s how you proceed.
Me: There’s another scene in the movie that I want to ask you about where Agent Scott is examining the mutilated corpse of one of the victims.
Mark Safarik: Profilers don’t do DNA analysis. We aren’t analyzing evidence. We aren’t making calls that the forensic pathologist should be making. And we don’t go to fresh crime scenes. The reason that we don’t is that a lot of information we need isn’t available immediately after the murder has happened.
Typically, the information that we need is not available for weeks, witnesses interviews, and neighborhood canvases. Reports have to be written and reviewed. The forensic pathologist has to do the autopsy. Forensic evidence has to be tested at the lab. We develop victimology. We typically don’t get involved in cases until months or years later. Often the reason that agencies are asking us for help is because their case is cold.
Me: Thanks for your “analysis” of Taking Lives, Mark.
Taking Lives is available to rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube. Watch the official trailer here.
You can listen to Mark Safarik talk more about the depiction of FBI profilers in crime fiction and in true crime here:
You can learn more misconceptions in Chapter 1 – FBI PROFILERS HUNT SERIAL KILLERS of FBI Myths and Misconceptions: A Manual for Armchair Detectives.
Mark Safarik’s Serial Killer TV and Movie Recommendations
Wire in the blood – 6 seasons – My favorite of them all – great profiler
The Fall with Gillian Anderson
Wallender both the original in Swedish with English subtitles and the more recent one in English with Kenneth Branagh.
Bordertown (three seasons) – Finland – excellent
River (one season)
True Detective Season 1 – One US show that is excellent with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. McConaughey’s character uses profiling skills and is excellent.