It doesn't happen often, but once or twice every decade a motion picture
comes along that redefines its genre. "Identity," complexly written
by Michael Cooney and stunningly crafted by director James Mangold
(1999's "Girl, Interrupted"), may just invigorate to life slasher
movies the same way that 1999's "The Sixth Sense" jump-started psychological
thrillers. Similarities between M. Night Shyamalan's monster hit and
this film are superficial, at best, but they do share a willingness
to offer up something startlingly fresh, thoroughly unpredictable,
genuinely creepy, and unshakably thought-provoking. By the time "Identity"
reaches its heart-stopping final twist of a scene (nevermind the corkscrew
zinger that comes fifteen minutes earlier), it is safe to say not
a single audience member will be able to pinpoint another movie quite
like the one that have just encountered.
Taking a page from Agatha Christie's classic, "Ten Little Indians,"
"Identity" places ten strangers within a secluded and ominous setting,
and then proceeds to methodically bump them off at the hands of a
mystery killer. It's a dark and stormy night in the Nevada desert.
With the roads flooded, seemingly unrelated travelers are forced to
check in at an out-of-the-way motel. The victims/suspects include
a limousine driver (John Cusack) chauffeuring has-been television
actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay); a down-on-their-luck
family consisting of a sincere stepfather (John C. McGinley), a critically
injured mother (Leila Kenzle), and a mute son (Bret Loehr); an argumentative
newlywed couple (Clea DuVall, William Lee Scott); a just-retired prostitute
(Amanda Peet) headed for her Florida hometown to start over; and a
police officer (Ray Liotta) transferring a convict (Jake Busey) across
the state. As these people start getting killed off in what increasingly
seems like a systematic fashion, they discover that they are all somehow
linked. But who is the cold-blooded murderer? And what is their motive?
Reading the premise, you may think you've got it all figured out,
or sigh with the feeling that you have seen such a tried-and-true
formula played out countless times before. Think again. "Identity"
may be a horror movie with a body count for its first hour, albeit
a particularly creepy and faultlessly orchestrated one, but then it
blindsides with the sort of plot revelation that turns everything
that has come before and everything that follows on its head. It is
utterly incalculable, even as you may scold yourself for not picking
up on all the carefully placed clues along the way. More importantly,
though, this novel twist does not pop up for the sole reason of fooling
the viewer, but has a real purpose for being. It metamorphoses "Identity"
from what could have been just a high-gloss, unusually well-cast slasher
movie into something markedly deeper, substantially richer, and far
more existential in nature. To say any more about the climactic truths
uncovered would be blasphemy directed toward those who have not had
the pleasure of experiencing this compact, 90-minute gem.
Director James Mangold delights in the first two acts in toying with
the typical slasher movie conventions, all the while cooking up something
far closer in atmosphere and style to Alfred Hitchcock than, say,
"Friday the 13th." The killings, although occasionally bloody, appear
more often after the fact than during the act, but it is in his classic-style
setups that Mangold really comes into his own. He is aided by the
sumptuously moody and detailed cinematography by Phedon Papamichael
(2002's "Moonlight Mile"), superbly putting shadows and pouring rain
to expert use, and the tight, meticulously woven editing by David
Brenner (2001's "Kate and Leopold").
At around the 65-minute mark, Mangold suddenly throws the genre safety
net out from under the viewers, but in a good way. Yes, it forces
us to look at everything differently, but it also strengthens rather
than cheapens what has already come. And, best of all, it adds levels
of poignancy and depth to the proceedings, just as the second twist--in
the final minutes--returns the movie with a bang to its veritably
scary and disturbing roots.
The cast, filled from all sides by real talent, fit right in. John
Cusack (2002's "Max") is so perfect in his sort of laid-back, everyman
kind of roles, and his Ed makes for an enthralling protagonist. As
former prostitute Paris, who just wants to get to Florida and start
an orchard, Amanda Peet (2002's "Changing Lanes") matches Cusack scene
for scene, developing her role far more than what is expected of a
female heroine, usually on hand to just run and scream (although she
does these quite well too). As the questionably off-kilter motel clerk,
John Hawkes (2000's "The Perfect Storm") brings an unforced, distinguishable
energy to his scenes. Everyone else--especially the wonderful Clea
DuVall (2002's "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing"), the always
interesting Ray Liotta (2001's "Heartbreakers"), and bright young
newcomer Bret Loehr--are standouts in purposefully archetypal roles.
Ultimately, how general audiences perceive the third act will make
or break "Identity" at the box office. It does not offer simple answers,
does not always follow through with what is expected of a spooky whodunit,
and will be rendered useless for those who don't pay close attention,
opting to make unnecessary bathroom runs and cell phone calls as the
movie is still playing itself out. For those who are tired of the
"same old thing," however, "Identity" makes for a surprisingly challenging
and rewarding motion picture experience, as ruminous and unforgettable
as it is thrillingly spooky and suspenseful. Move over, "Psycho" and
"Rosemary's Baby"--"Identity" has every last thing it takes to achieve
classic modern horror film status.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman