Director : James Mangold
Screenplay : Michael Cooney
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : John Cusack (Ed), Ray Liotta (Rhodes), Amanda Peet (Paris), Alfred Molina (Psychiatrist), Clea DuVall (Ginny), Rebecca De Mornay (Caroline Suzanne), John C. McGinley (George York), John Hawkes (Larry), William Lee Scott (Lou), Jake Busey (Robert Maine)
Identity, which takes place over one perpetually rainy night, is essentially a reworked version of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, in which 10 strangers find themselves stranded in an isolated mansion and are slowly killed off one by one. This time around, however, it's not an isolated mansion, but rather an isolated motel, perhaps the most isolated since Norman worked the desk at the Bates Motel (clearly one of the film's many, many allusions to other horror films). The motel is further removed from the rest of the world by an incessant thunderstorm that has flooded the desolate Nevada highway at either end. No one is getting out.
In a series of jarringly edited sequences, we meet each of the main characters and see how they came to be at the motel (which, eerily enough, doesn't have a name--the sign just reads MOTEL). There's Ed (John Cusack), a former police detective who is now working as a limo driver. His assignment that night is driving an ego-inflated fading movie star (Rebecca Demornay), but their night is forever altered when he accidentally hits the wife of a decent, but extremely uptight man (John C. McGinley) while their young son watches. Others who find themselves stuck at the motel include a pair of squabbling young newlyweds just off their shotgun wedding (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott), a Las Vegas call girl (Amanda Peet), as well as the motel's proprietor, a shifty-looking guy named Larry (John Hawkes).
Things take a turn for the worst with the arrival of Rhodes (Ray Liotta), a police officer who is transporting an evil-eyed convicted killer (Jake Busey) who, not surprisingly, manages to escape and disappear into the night. And that is when, as Ed reports to a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) later in the film, "People started dying."
As explained in that brief plot summary, Identity reads like a formulaic slasher flick thinly disguised as a murder mystery. In fact, for a while the film almost begins to feel like a desperate grab-bag, as supernatural elements begin to work their way into the plot and there is even talk of the fact that the motel was built on an ancient Indian burial ground, which is surely a last resort for horror movies at this point. However, despite the preponderance of "been there, done that," the film is expertly directed by James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted, Kate & Leopold), who seems to know just how long to hold a shot, just when to make a cut, and exactly what angle to use to fully exploit the creepy shadows and the run-down mise-en-scene. He deploys horror cliches with regularity (something jumping out of the corner of the screen to crashing music, a figure emerging in the darkness only to reveal himself as a friend, etc.), yet it is done with a sense of style and panache that draws you in--Mangold clearly relishes the ability to work in well-worn genre territory and show us that even old devices can work if done effectively.
However, all those cliches are really just a set-up. They're like Hitchcock's macguffin, that plot element that seems to be the focus of the movie, but is really a distraction from the filmmaker's actual agenda. Identity has a twist--a big one--that some will see as extraordinarily clever and others will write off as phony. Big plot twists in movies these days, especially the ones that make you realize that everything you thought you knew was actually an illusion, have become de rigeur as of late, with each new movie trying to top the previous ones with its twistiness. Identity fits right in there, and the twist it offers works well if you're willing to go with it. The only problem is that, after it's revealed, there's still a good 15 minutes of screen time left, and those final minutes tend to sag because we know the real story by this point (or, at least most of it, since there has to be one more twist left for the final scene), and any sense of suspense if virtually gone.
Whether you buy the twist or not, Identity is a well-wrought genre film, one that offers horror and suspense in equal doses. The top-notch cast works wonders with a minimal amount of material to go on--each one is basically playing a type with not much psychological background. Yet, they make each character feel real and unique, which turns out to be crucial to the film's eventual development. After all, with a title like that, you know it can't just be about a mysterious slasher.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick