The thriller Identity has its own identity crisis. Is it an A-list suspense film with a serious psychological inquiry into character and destiny or just a silly slasher flick driven by cheap scares?
Director James Mangold makes Identity intentionally bipolar, hoping the film can integrate both personalities at once. The shlocky side wins out, but Identity works overtime to mess with its audience's head.
It begins as a morbidly compelling look at cause and effect. At a middle-of-nowhere Nevada motel, a panicky husband (John C. McGinley) bursts into the lobby with his bleeding wife. The frame freezes on him, then we see him driving along a rainy road with his family and having a blow-out. The husband changes the tire and discovers that they ran over a high-heeled boot. Then there's another freeze-frame, and we see a tough call girl (Amanda Peet) driving a convertible down the same stretch of highway hours earlier, spilling the boot from her car while searching for a cigarette lighter. And so on.
A chain of accidents, including a shocking hit-and-run, eventually strands 10 strangers at the motel. There's a fading movie star (an unrecognizable Rebecca de Mornay), a pair of young newlyweds (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott) and a corrections officer (Ray Liotta) transporting a crazy-eyed prisoner (Jake Busey). An ex-cop turned limo driver (John Cusack) quickly becomes the moral center, trying to find a phone and get medical treatment for the injured woman.
Identity quickly turns into a don't-go-in-there slasher flick, beginning when the actress wanders off alone, trying to get a cell phone signal. The other guests realize that they're being picked off one by one, and the stalker leaves with each victim a room key, with numbers counting down from 10.
We cut between events at the motel and scenes of Alfred Molina as a criminal psychologist, waiting for a condemned serial killer to be transported to a last-minute hearing on the eve of his execution. The opening credit sequence chillingly recounts the murderer's personal history, and the details, combined with the motel stalking scenes, makes Identity a dead ringer for one of the Halloween films. Molina fits the Donald Pleasence role almost perfectly.
Director Mangold makes the motel an isolated, gothic location: It's frequently back-lit with lightning bolts like Castle Frankenstein, and spidery palm fronds lean into shadowy corners. Characters shudder at ominous arrivals on this archetypal dark and stormy night. But the level of violence makes the film not moody but lurid: One murder is accurately described with the verb "lop."
As a whodunit, Identity keeps us on our toes, shifting our suspicions from John Hawkes' squirrelly desk clerk to Busey's shark-toothed convict to Cusack's character, who takes medication to prevent blackouts. Cusack's understatement nicely plays against Identity's over-the-top tone: He may have started his career in teen roles, but now he's convincing as the most mature adult in the room.
Amanda Peet plays the same kind of sexual provocateur in every film, but she can find the vulnerability underneath the moxie. The rest of the ensemble gets few opportunities to go beyond their characters' thumbnail descriptions. Clea DuVall spends much of the film in weepy hysteria, shot unflatteringly from below.
Screenwriter Michael Cooney leaves enough clues for you to anticipate key plot points, but then he makes a third-act revelation that tries to out-twist The Twilight Zone, rewriting the rules so brazenly that he'll tick off many ticket buyers. Once you know what the film is really about, you lose a little emotional stake in it -- Cooney leaves out a few pieces of the narrative puzzle -- but it makes for the film's most eerie effects.
A victim-to-be makes explicit reference to Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, one of Identity's clear influences (the motel even has its own Indian burial ground). If Christie, the grand dame of English murder mysteries, were to somehow see Identity, she'd probably be shocked into dropping her pen and gardening for the rest of her days. Fans of the Scream movies, however, should eat Identity up.