Mark Reviews Movies

IDENTITY

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Mangold

Cast: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Ray Liotta, John Hawkes, John C. McGinley, Rebecca De Mornay, Clea DuVall, William Lee Scott, Leila Kenzle, Bret Loehr, Jake Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Alfred Molina

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and language)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 4/25/03


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Identity starts with a scene that gives too much away too quickly, although you won't know it until you realize all of the central plot's characters have been introduced and the guy at the center of the opening expository monologue is nowhere to be seen. As the coincidences and strange occurrences build, it's essentially a given that nothing is as it seems and there is no rational, realistic solution to the plot. From then out, it's just a matter of figuring out the potential shocker of a twist before it happens. There are a few options, none of which I can go through without giving anything away. While it's entertaining watching the pieces of the puzzle fall the together, the only problem is that screenwriter Michael Cooney only leaves a limited number of pieces out of his puzzle, showing us more of the picture than we'd care to see. A better approach would have been either to keep us completely in the dark and pull the rug out from under us or to reveal everything straight away and begin to deconstruct the proceedings. Identity still works as a thrilling scare machine and an ambitious but structurally flawed gimmick.

A group of ten travelers is about to have a chance meeting at a roadside motel during a torrential rainstorm. Ed (John Cusack) is driving the formerly famous actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay) when he accidentally hits someone standing on the deserted, darkened highway. The Yorks' family car gets a flat tire, and while father George (John C. McGinley) works, mother Alice (Leila Kenzle) and son Timothy (Bret Loehr) wait patiently. Alice steps outside and is subsequently run down by an oncoming vehicle. Paris (Amanda Peet) is a Vegas prostitute on her way to sunny Florida to start anew. She comes across an impassable section of flooded road and loses the use of her car. A man on his way to the hospital to get an ambulance for a woman comes along and gives her a ride the other way, where that side of the road is flooded as well. Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott), a newly married couple, are stopped by a man and a woman whose car has been driven into a deeply flooded section of the highway. The other way is the same, so they all arrive (back, for some) at a desert motel, run by Larry (John Hawkes). Soon after, Rhodes (Ray Liotta) shows up and needs a room for himself and his prisoner Robert Maine (Jake Busey).

Director James Mangold introduces this setup in one of those bait-and-switch jobs of editing in which we see an event from one perspective then get a second then a third and eventually see the whole picture. Once everyone is settled in for the night (or so they think), there's another fantastic editing trick (I feel the need to mention the editor is David Brenner after commending his work twice) which seamlessly goes from one room to another so we can see what these people are up to before the proverbial shit hits the fan. And, boy, does it. Soon the actress goes out looking for a strong enough signal to reach her cell phone, and soon after the shower curtain she used to cover herself is splattered with blood. Yes, this is essentially a horror movie where each character is a potential and eventual target, but Mangold has learned well from the masters of the genre. The actual onscreen violence is kept to a severe minimum, but the end results are captured with a chilling effectiveness. Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael create a hauntingly tacky and typical atmosphere of florescent and neon lights and tight corners around which anyone could pop out. The film's suspense works primarily because Mangold has successfully turned ordinary things, like the odd sounds dryers occasionally make and intense arguments separated by a closed door, into the designs of horror.

Cooney's mystery, on the other hand, has too many points of revelation before everything is pulled together to keep the whole thing a complete mystery. I'm not suggesting that I knew exactly what the mind-bending twist that explains why all of this is happening after the opening scene, but I certainly had a fairly good idea of the route it was heading. There's also an obligatory final shock, which the film does give away in at least one scene where a character's exit is announced and his or her return immediately precedes the discovery of another victim. The thing that Cooney has admirably succeeded at is staying true to the rules of his game. He subtly drops tiny details that hint not at the ultimate disclosure of the mystery but at points of depth about the overlying structure. His characters are all types, which is, of course, usual in a horror movie, but here it means much more. The actors fit these roles just right. John Cusack particularly stands out as his understated persona is used to great effect as the calm voice of reason.

I'm torn on Identity. On one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed its atmosphere, performances, and skilled handling; on the other hand, I was taken out of the experience by the construction of its plot. I'm still thinking about it, though, and I'd like to see it again, just to pick up more of the details in the background. So, if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

Copyright 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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