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Identity Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007

Image How much you like “Identity” will depend on your acceptance of the twist ending. To me, the explanation is highly implausible, and violates what I know about the psychological disorder afflicting one of the characters. But the film did receive some very positive reviews; consider this review just one more opinion. (Which is all they ever are in the first place.)

Behind the opening credits, we see psychiatrist Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina) poring over clippings, a notebook, and psychology reports—these center on Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince). We soon learn that this is the night before Rivers’ execution for having murdered all the people in a house.

But before any of this can be more than briefly revealed, the story shifts to the Southwestern desert in heavy downpour. A group of travelers and others are stranded at a lonely motel, where Larry (John Hawkes) is the jittery clerk. Those arriving include George York (John C. McGinley), whose wife (Leila Kenzle) was just hit by a limousine driven by Ed (John Cusack), in which the passenger was minor movie star Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca DeMornay). Accompanying George is his young son Timmy (Bret Loehr). Others arriving include Paris (Amanda Peet), Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott). Arriving later is policeman Rhodes (Ray Liotta), who was escorting convict Robert Maine (Jake Busey) to prison.

There is already tension in place between Ginny and Lou and, of course, between Rhodes and Maine. Caroline is haughty and unpleasant, but Ed is slightly attracted to Paris. Larry, still jittery, assigns them rooms. The rain continues. And then someone finds Caroline’s head in a clothes dryer. More murders follow. Etc. If you think this sounds like a restaging of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”/”And Then There Were None,” you’re right. Even though Christie isn’t credited, screenwriter Michael Cooney was honest enough to have one of the characters refer to that classic during the course of the action. Peculiarly, though the surprise near the end seems to move away from Christie’s plot, the final surprise returns to Christie, in an unusual way.

That unusual element cannot be discussed here without giving away the whole ball of wax. Unfortunately, that unusual element is also so implausible (at least in terms of how the movie is presented), that it is at once the movie’s main distinction and its biggest weakness. For about 2/3 of its length, “Identity” is well-directed (by James Mangold), efficiently acted and moderately engrossing. But ultimately the film is derailed by its own ingenuity. And make no mistake: it IS ingenious, a clever variation on the one-murder-after-another Christie plot. But it’s simply not convincing.

However, there is that first 2/3rds. Although some of the characters, like Ginny, are more annoying than interesting, and others, like Maine, are ciphers (though Busey does get to leer menacingly several times), a couple of them, Ed and Paris in particular, are more likeable. Ed serves as the audience surrogate, and the story gradually comes more and more to center on him. John Cusack is a fine actor, and very much up to this challenge, though the ending lets him down. Another actor who makes a strong impression is John Hawkes, as Larry the motel clerk. He has a great emotional meltdown scene that director Mangold wisely emphasizes. In fact, in his commentary track, Mangold explains that originally, that scene was to have been filmed from rather far back, but when he saw how good Hawkes was, he changed it to a medium closeup on the actor.

Being set mostly in elapsed time and largely in the motel, there’s a claustrophobic feel to “Identity,” which Mangold doesn’t capitalize on. There’s a certain droning quality to the story, which writer and director try to offset with by variations in the murder techniques. However, murdering one character by shoving a baseball bat down his throat is more than a little implausible. And there’s at least one death—by exploding car—that seems actually impossible, under these circumstances.

The sound is especially impressive, with the surround speakers given a healthy workout, first by the constant rainfall, but also in terms of keeping us constantly, if almost subliminally, aware of the surroundings. However, as a demonstration of video high fidelity, “Identity” is mostly uninteresting. High definition is rarely seen to its advantage in night scenes, and “Identity” takes place almost entirely at night. Furthermore, close shots proliferate, and as usual, these don’t benefit much from being seen in high definition. Yes, the rain has a realistic clarity, but it’s mostly well in the background. There is a scene at the end on a daylit highway that makes good use of the clarity high definition provides—but at the same time, you have to wonder just where in Florida you can find this desert and mountain scenery.

The commentary track by James Mangold is of little interest, except insofar as you are amused by his massive ego. He frequently describes scenes and ideas in glowing terms—in short, bragging about his work. This varies between amusingly and accidentally ironic, and embarrassing. It would be more embarrassing if he wasn’t usually such a good director. Among his other titles: “Cop Land,” “Girl, Interrupted,” “Kate & Leopold” and the Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line.” His remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” due out later this year, is already getting favorable notice.

The problems with “Identity” don’t lie with the impressive cast or the strong direction, but with the over-thought screenplay. Writer Michael Cooney is clever, but badly informed on the psychological trait at the center of his plot; as a result, it’s a flimsy house of cards that crashes down at the end. On the other hand, he does a great commentary track, entertaining, amusing and very courteous to the listener. His only other films that Americans (he’s British) might have seen are “Jack Frost” (1996), about a murderous snowman, and its sequel, “Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman” ( 2000).

The other extras are negligible. As usual, the deleted scenes mostly show only that Mangold was wise to delete them. There’s an episode of the “On the Set” TV series focusing on “Identity,” and a storyboard-to-scene comparison.

If you’re fond—VERY fond—of guess-the-killer movies, you’re likely to have fun with “Identity,” but the tricky ending is hard to follow—and then hard to WANT to follow.

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