USA 2003 : James MANGOLD : 90 mins

One proverbially dark and stormy night, a group of strangers find themselves trapped in a seedy motel in the middle of nowhere. Their attempts at escape foiled by flooded roads, they’re picked off one-by-one by an unseen killer who seems to have almost supernatural powers.

Identity revels in its classic murder-mystery set-up – just as the audience is thinking about Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, one of the characters puts our thoughts into words: “Remember that movie where the ten strangers went to an island, and they all died?” The first hour or so feels (deliberately) like it could have been made any time in the last forty years: the rain-drenched motel (expertly designed by Mark Friedberg) is just the kind of spooky setting used in the late fifties and early sixties for episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and, especially, Alfred Hitchcock Presents – the series from which Psycho was, in effect, a big-screen spin-off.

Shows like those, of course, never had casts quite this classy: John Cusack as a harassed limo driver escorting a temperamental has-been star (Rebecca De Mornay) away from a movie-set; Ray Liotta as a cop ferrying a dangerous criminal (Jake Busey) to jail; Alfred Molina as a psychologist who isn’t actually at the motel himself, but occupies a parallel story-strand about a prisoner awaiting execution; Clea DuVall (from Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted) and Amanda Peet as tough-talking women in peril.

These aren’t the sort of actors we expect to see in what is, at heart, a pulpy stalk-and-slash whodunit chiller.

The first warning sign we’re in for something rather more pretentious is when we glimpse a copy of Satrte’s tome Being and Nothingness on the seat of Cusack’s limo – and, sure enough, at the one-hour mark scriptwriter Michael Cooney reveals his lofty ambitions with the first and most audacious of not one, not two, but three major plot twists that will divide audiences between the swooningly appreciative (“Oh wow!”) and the thoroughly frustrated (“Oh phooey!”).

While the kind of material that would work brilliantly on the pages of a cheap, disposable old-school horror comic, frugal prospective viewers should know that it is, at the very least, debatable whether there’s enough here to justify a pricey night out at the movies, or even a home-video rental. To give further details would, of course, be unfair – though anyone who has seen a recent film which featured a pulpy stalk-and-slash whodunit chiller script will have a considerable head start. As will cinemagoers who’ve seen Identity‘s intriguing trailer – this unfortunately gives away far too many clues to the big structural gimmick that underpins everything we (think we) see, especially taken in conjuction with the opening titles, to which it isn’t perhaps advisable to pay too much attention if you want to get full enjoyment out of the script’s puzzles.

Because this is, like The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects and others of their acquired-taste smart-alec genre, a “trick” picture. In interview, director Mangold himself actually refers to the screenplay’s surprises as a “magic trick”, something that builds to a “punchline”. And just as nobody looks for substance or depth in jokes or magic tricks, audiences expecting a rewarding ninety minutes from Identity will feel very short-changed indeed – the movie makes less sense the more you think about it (on closer inspection the very final twist is by implication emphatically pro-death-penalty.) This is a slick, well-directed, atmospheric film. It also happens to be a quite pointless waste of everyone’s time.

13th June, 2003
(seen 6th June: Showcase, Dudley)

by Neil Young