“Identity” is a lot smarter than “Basic”, although the two movies essentially pride themselves on being Head Trip films and thus, fooling the audience with their cleverness. Whereas “Basic” really has no other reason to exist other than to fool the audience, “Identity” definitely has a better sense of who it is and what it wants to be. As to storyline, watching 10 strangers being picked off by an invisible killer at an out-of-the-way motel in a rain-drenched night is definitely more pleasing than watching John Travolta interrogating some jarhead in a too-dark room.
John Cusacks (“Serendipity) stars as Ed, an ex-cop who becomes a limo driver after an experience on the force sours him. Ed is driving a has-been actress (Rebecca De Mornay, who looks nothing like Rebecca De Mornay, if you know what I mean), when they get into an accident during a night filled with darkness, a vicious thunderstorm, and the downpour to end all downpours. As a result, Ed and his spoiled charge have to take refuge at a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere. Also there is George (John C. McGinley), a troubled husband with his injured wife and mute stepson; Ginny and Lou, two teens who have just eloped but are having second thoughts (especially Lou); corrections officer Rhodes (Ray Liotta) and his charge, convicted killer Robert Maine (Jake Busey); hooker with a heart Paris (Amanda Peet); and Larry (John Hawkes), the motel’s oddball manager.
It isn’t long after the strangers arrive at the motel that people start dying under mysterious circumstances. Left behind with the bodies is their motel room keys, counting down from 10, where the first victim was staying. Later, the bodies begin to disappear, and the survivors realize they all share the same birthday. Just what the hell is going on here, and what does it have to do with a doctor (Alfred Molina) who is trying to get a convicted mass murderer (Pruitt Taylor Vince) a stay of execution 24 hours before his dance with the gas chamber? And what’s up with all the names of American states that keep popping up?
Directed by Indie darling James Mangold (“Copland”) and written by Michael Cooney (whose best known credit was the Slasher “Jack Frost” and its — gasp! — sequel), “Identity” is a breezy 90-minutes that, in the hands of other filmmakers, would probably have been stretched out to 2 hours and probably to the movie’s detriment. The film is all about mystery, with the strangers trapped at the motel intercutting with scenes of men trying to decide the fate of the mass murderer seamlessly integrated. It isn’t until the 70-minute mark that everything is explained and the movie’s big surprise is revealed, but even then there’s still about 15 minutes of intriguing story to be had.
The most enjoyable aspect of “Identity” is how well it works within the confines of the familiar Slasher genre, and at the same time completely undermines the concept of genre conventions in the first place. For a while the movie looks familiar, and you begin to think there’s nothing new here. Even the characters, from ex-cop Ed to hooker Paris, are one-note and stereotypes. (Gee, I was so surprised when Ray Liotta (“Turbulence”) turned out to be a psycho with a gun.) It’s as if Cooney and Mangold knew the audience, especially genre fans, would immediately latch onto the clich’d characters. Which makes the movie’s big twist even more satisfying, because it makes the audience think, “Oh, so that’s why.”
Which isn’t to say “Identity” is perfect. While the Big Reveal (followed by another Big Reveal at movie’s end) is quite clever and I didn’t see it coming at all, the movie still doesn’t have enough faith in itself to allow the audience the chance to out-guess it. Meaning that while the film plays up its supernatural elements after the hour mark, the movie, up to that point, is relatively situated in the realm of possibility. Some hints that this is a Head Trip film, with a Big Reveal to come, would have been appreciated. But like “Vanilla Sky”, “Identity” is all about lulling the audience into believing that what they’re seeing is the actual story, and not that there’s another story (the real story) waiting in the wings.
“Identity” breaks ground for James Mangold, who hasn’t done a film like this yet in his still-short career. “Copland” comes the closest, but Mangold hasn’t really shown an interest in making this type of film. Not that “Identity” is all genre, because it certainly does a faint and jab. Of note is Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s use of perspective. The film’s frames are constantly distorted, as the lens focuses in on one character while distorting the rest, only to change focus again in the same shot, with the distortion now on someone else.
“Identity” is an excellent thriller, with a tight and taut storyline that knows exactly where it’s going. The actors all do good jobs for the most part, with the exception of Clea DuVall (“How to Make a Monster”), who plays the emotionally brittle Ginny and is rather irritating throughout. Of course since the film is an exercise in genre bending, I guess seeing so many clich’d characters is part of the point. Then again, they’re still just cardboard cut-outs without a single ounce of originality to them.
James Mangold (director) / Michael Cooney (screenplay)
CAST: John Cusack …. Ed
Ray Liotta …. Rhodes
Amanda Peet …. Paris
John Hawkes …. Larry
Alfred Molina …. Doctor
Clea DuVall …. Ginny