dentity" 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 clichéd
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 clichéd characters is part of the point. Then
again, they're still just cardboard cut-outs without a single ounce of
originality to them.