The film: Identity (2003)
The Principals: John Cusack (Ed Dakota), Ray Liotta (Samual Rhodes), Amanda Peet (Paris Nevada), Alfred Molina (Dr. Mallick), John C. McGinley (George York), Jake Busey (Robert Maine), Clea DuVall (Ginny Isiana), William Lee Scott (Lou Isiana), Rebecca De Mornay (Caroline Suzanne), John Hawkes (Larry Washington), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Malcolm Rivers). Directed by James Mangold
The Premise: For a change, I’m going to keep this short and sweet for the folks who haven’t seen it yet and may feel inspired and/or compelled to after reading my profound and eloquent ramblings on this movie (I’ll explain why in a bit). Convicted cereal serial killer Malcolm Rivers finds his death sentence temporarily suspended for the evening when his psychiatrist and defense attorneys discover new evidence that may reduce his sentence to psychiatric care. Meanwhile – in what is clearly a completely unconnected story that couldn’t possibly have any ties to Rivers’ appeal hearing – ten random folks, each saddled with a different vocation and coming from a different part of the country, mysteriously show up at the same motel in the middle of nowhere during a major drench storm. Cue the plot to “Ten Little “And Then There Were None”.
Is It Good? I had originally given this movie a wide berth upon its initial release back in 2003. Okay, wide berth may be a bit of a melodramatic overstatement. I’ll just say that I avoided the hell out of it like it was Captain Trips. I just remember reading reviews lambasting it for being too derivative, too confusing, and having an ending that didn’t live up to the build-up. That, plus the fact that there were so many other films vying for my attention that year (some I now regret… actually, now that I think about it I regret most of the films I saw that year), forced Identity to slip right off my radar.
Chalk that up to another mistake on my part (I make a lot of those, if you haven’t noticed).
Luckily, it was a mistake that I finally got around to rectifying. After catching this flick on Netflix Streaming the other day with the girlfriend, I discovered that Identity is actually a neatly-crafted, enjoyable little film.
First of all, the premise alone is fascinating. Without giving too much away, this is as much psychological thriller as it is a straight up slasher flick, juxtaposed with a side of Legal Drama-Au Gratin for added flavour. And as someone with an interest in psychology, I tend to enjoy an occasional mindfuck in my movie beverage. Identity does a good job of delivering on that. From the moment each of the main characters shows up at the motel, a lot of bizarre cues are tossed at you – from the subtle and not-so-subtle clues that pay off to the big reveal at the end to the eccentricities on display from each of the lodgers to the random curve balls thrown in for good measure. The motel plot unfolds in such an askew manner, creating a perfectly chilling atmosphere that leaves you disoriented (in a good way) as you try to figure out what the hell is going on, all while the concurrent plot focusing on Dr. Mallick’s appeal keeps cutting in and out to throw you off even further. But it all serves a purpose – to keep you off-kilter until it all comes together in a neat, creative little twist.
A small side effect of this – and one of the few, minor issues that I have with the film in general – is that until it all comes together the transitions are slightly jarring. This sometimes leaves you feeling like you are watching two different movies unfold simultaneously. Again, it’s a minor issue, but one that serves a greater purpose toward the payoff in the end.
One element that helps make the film work (despite the lightly schizophrenic storytelling) is the cast. Cusack is clearly the anchor of the film. Unlike a lot of his more recent work (I’m looking at you, Raven), his charisma and intensity are in full force here, and he plays it like he means it. This is Being John Malkovich John Cusack, not 2012 John Cusack.
That doesn’t mean that the rest of the players aren’t pulling their own weight. In fact, Identity sports an impressive ensemble cast featuring actors and actresses from different career layers. Pruitt Vince continues to use his shifty-eye condition to create truly disturbing and lingering antagonists. Alfred Molina shows he can still play an engaging doctor. Ray Liotta reminds me of why I love Ray Liotta, all while doing an exceptional job of making me forget that he ever did an Uwe Boll film. Busey puts on his dad’s crazy-face (not literally… this time) and enjoys taking large Busey-chomps out of the scenery as a dangerous convict in custody. John C. McGinley proves once again that he is up to any task when it comes to television or film roles. I just love watching this man perform. And though I’ve never been a fan of Amanda Peet, I rather enjoyed her performance here as the prostitute with a heart of iron pyrite. Ex-invisible girl Clea Du Vall manages to make me question why her film career never went anywhere, while even Rebecca De Mornay – whose all-too-brief appearance almost feels like a satire of her real-life career – fully commits to being in on her own joke. And I always love me some John Hawkes. With their powers combined they help create the tension necessary to drive the story forward in between kills, while at the same time temper the transitions.
When all is said and done, Identity is a solid thriller that delivers an engaging plot, delivered in a unique and fun way that results in a creative twist.
Is It Worth a Look? Absolutely, but there is one additional problem I have with the film. It doesn’t prevent it from being watchable, but it does prevent it from having what those video game kids refer to as “replay value” (it also allows me to finally reveal the reason why I’ve been unusually tight-lipped about the movie’s details).
One of the things I love about movies is the ability to revisit the ones I really enjoy and experience them all over again. Sometimes I’ll discover new details I’ve never noticed before. Sometimes it’s to see if it still holds up. Other times it’s just for the chance to visit an old friend. The problem with Identity is that, although it’s great on the first view, once you see all the events unfold and the final reveal is brought to light the films immediately loses its luster. It’s like going through a novelty haunted house with the lights on – once you see how everything is set up and executed the walk-through no longer wows you once the lights are turned back off.
Identity suffers the same problem. Once the puzzle is laid out plainly so you can see where all the pieces go, all the mystique and suspense is gone. Without that, what you’re left with is a film with the air let out of it. Even the fine performances feel a little duller once they don’t have that backbone to rely on anymore. I enjoyed Identity a lot, and I highly recommend it. But I never need to see it again.
Random Anecdotes: Director James Mangold started as a writer/director for Disney, working on projects such as Oliver & Company. He has since gone on to do films like Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 to Yuma, and Walk the Line. Whatever Disney did to drive him to this remains unknown.
The majority of Identity was shot on the same set that was used for the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. In an odd twist, a munchkin actually did hang himself on the Identity set.
John Cusack likes cheese. Maybe.
Cinematic Soulmates: Shutter Island, The Secret Window, Vacancy, Gothika, Psycho