If it didn’t so obviously borrow from other epidermally obsessed movies, namely The Silence of the Lambs and Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, the German thriller Tattoo might have qualified as a ghoulish curio spaced-out on its own skin lust. As it is, this plodding serial-killer procedural grafts hand-me-down malevolence onto a standard rookie-veteran police yarn, the results of which yield nary a fright, let alone a goose pimple.
Writer-director Robert Schwentke clearly harbors Prince of Darkness aspirations. Set in dankest Berlin, his movie envisions a subterranean skin trade where tattoos are bought and sold like rare paintings. The discarded bodies soon prompt a police investigation, but Schwentke seems more interested in working the rain machine than creating any forensic complexity. Assuming the Morgan Freeman role, senior detective Minks (Christian Redl) waxes poetically jaded as he trudges through a roster of suspects that includes a femme fatale, an insinuating lawyer, and a Japanese connection. As Marc, his neophyte partner, August Diehl easily fulfills the youth-beauty quota, though his delivery is even more toneless than either Brad Pitt’s or Ashley Judd’s.
Eager to shock, Tattoo piles on the prosthetic gore. Bodies (peeled and charred), limbs (severed and digested), and wounds (gushing and farting) are all on display for maximum necrophilic immersion. When contemplating the dead, the movie channels a restless, roving menace (thanks largely to Steadicam work by pre-Russian Ark Tilman Büttner). But whenever the story shifts to the living, especially during a shameless subplot involving Minks’s wayward daughter, Tattoo practically chokes on its gothic ambitions. The determinedly downbeat ending has Diehl’s Marc leaping into an infinite vortex—an act of desperation that mirrors the movie’s kamikaze death spiral.