Identity (2003) / Mystery-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for some gore, violence and language
Running Time: 90 min.

Cast: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall, John C. McGinley, William Lee Scott, Jake Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rebecca De Mornay
Director:  James Mangold
Screenplay: Michael Cooney
Review published April 27, 2003

Part Agatha Christie, part Alfred Hitchcock, Identity is a modern updating of old-school mystery/suspense for today's slasher-flick loving audiences. Shades of Psycho mixed with "Ten Little Indians" get churned in the idea blender. Toss in a few new twists, and you have an engrossing mystery full of colorful characters and plot developments galore.

Most of these elements come from the mind of screenwriter Michael Cooney, probably better known for his b-grade Jack Frost horror flicks, but before these, he had dabbled in the sorts of psychological thrillers of which Identity firmly belongs. His first screenplay was for the little-seen 1995 Kelly LeBrock thriller, Tracks of a Killer, which, like Identity, features a trip to an isolated place (here a chalet) where a crazed psycho runs rampant. Cooney followed this up with an adaptation of his own play, Murder in Mind, more of a twisty, head-trip psychological thriller, involving hypnosis and therapy, which Identity explores in its opening scenes. Neither of these films were known for being great, but they had interesting ideas that for some reason never took things to the next level.

Although Identity pulls ideas from some of the classier mystery and suspense films of the past, it is actually much more content to play itself out in the world of b-movie slash-and-gash, full of dismembered bodies and ooga booga theatrics. There is a quality cast here, with John Cusack (Serendipity, America's Sweethearts) and Ray Liotta (John Q, Narc) giving terrific performances, and lending much-needed credibility to a very incredible storyline. Also in the film's favor is the direction by James Mangold, previously known for such films and Kate & Leopold and Girl Interrupted.  Mangold gives the film a very tense feel and, along with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Moonlight Mile, Phenomenon), has crafted a good-looking thriller with harrowing plays on shadows and light. The engaging actors draw you in, while the atmospheric sights and sounds keep you on the edge of your seat in a very effective way.

Identity starts off in rural Nevada, where a severe thunderstorm has rendered a good chunk of the roads too flooded to use, standard phone lines are down, and cell phones seem to be out of range. The only place for anyone trapped within this stretch to go to is a seedy, isolated motel run by an almost equally unsavory manager (Hawkes, Hard Ball). The inhabitants include a limo driver (Cusack), his has-been actress passenger (De Mornay, Runaway Train), a police officer (Liotta) transporting a convicted killer (Busey, Tomcats), a Las Vegas prostitute (Peet, Igby Goes Down), a mismatched newlywed couple, and a mousy couple with a young boy. Soon, murders begin to take place, and the hunt is on to determine which among them is the ruthless killer that leaves behind keys sporting in descending order, starting with number 10. As the countdown begins for the motel's guests, so does the countdown begin in another side story involving the potential stayed execution of a deranged serial killer (Vince, Simone), where his psychiatrist (Molina, Frida) is trying to convince a panel that his client suffers from a disorder where a separate identity did the murders, an identity he feels that no longer is part of him.

For most of the way, Identity is a crackerjack suspenser, and will probably leave most second-guessing who the identity of the killer is much of the way. It ticks by like a well-oiled machine, never missing a beat, and increases in intensity as the implausibility sets in. There is a point where the the side storyline of the serial killer converges with the main plot, and here is where Identity starts to lose some of the sure footing, not because it isn't ingeniously conceived, but because it should have been tighter and more efficiently handled. Perhaps the convergence comes too early, perhaps too late, and while the overall criss-cross is satisfying, the developments that follow are a bit sloppy and not as appealing.

That said, Identity is still recommended for getting it right most of the time, and it definitely will arrest your attention for the duration. How much you ultimately enjoy it will be largely dependent with how much the film manages to fool you, and although the twists are ambitious, it does leave you with enough clues to figure it out before they are revealed. Still, it's good to see that you can breathe new life into the even the oldest of storylines and make it entertaining for the new and old alike, even if they are skewed from time to time into the realm of the absurd. It's a schizophrenic experience, but considering the psychological themes presented, quite appropriately so.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo