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Identity   B-

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: James Mangold
Writer: Michael Cooney
Cast: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall, Rebecca DeMornay, John C. McGinley, John Hawkes, Lee Scott, Jake Busey.

Review by Rob Vaux
"Ten little Indians going out to dine
One choked his little self and then there were nine..."
--Traditional English nursery rhyme

If Agatha Christie wrote a murder mystery set at the Bates Motel, it would look a lot like Identity. It employs the same locked-room puzzle that she and her ilk delighted in, updated 80 years and transplanted to the neo-noir of the desolate Southwest. Director James Mangold's most recent work was the light-as-a-feather Kate and Leopold, but here he demonstrates a reasonable ability to shift gears, and despite a few wrong turns, makes good on Identity's enticing premise.

It starts with the setting: a backroad Nevada hotel on the verge of being reclaimed by the desert. Add to it a horrendous thunderstorm that washes out the roads and 10 bedraggled travelers in search of lodging, and suddenly we have a setup that hints deliciously at great things. We also have John Cusack in a fine subtle performance as the first guest to suspect that something may be wrong with the situation. Soon enough, people begin dying one by one, and Cusack's limo-driving ex-cop finds himself in the role of de facto detective. The murders are methodical and precise, and each victim is found with a room key... starting with 10 and counting down to one.

Having established the basic parameters, Mangold then backs off a bit, relying on the terrific atmosphere to carry out some very routine shocks and scares. His "boo-gotcha" tactics are nicely played, but a trifle stale, and the early scenes of Identity look to squander the film's assets. The actors also settle into comfortable stereotypes: John C. McGinley as a neurotic father, Rebecca DeMornay as a bitchy actress, Ray Liotta as... as that guy Ray Liotta always plays, and so on. Cusack has more to chew on, and Amanda Peet blooms like a lotus in her otherwise abysmal hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role, but the remainder simply do the best they can in the confines of their assigned niche. Had Identity contented itself with business as usual, it wouldn't have survived past the opening credits.

Luckily, it has more on its mind than ho-hum thrills. Mangold uses the faux suspense to hold the fort, relying on the thunder and bloodstains as cover for the film's second-half surprises. Identity finds its hooks not in the artful-but-routine surface details, but in the quiet clues lurking in the corners of the frame. Something has drawn these people to this location, some common link that binds them all together. As they struggle to uncover the (supernatural?) killer in their midst, a faraway judge convenes a hearing for a death-row killer (Pruitt Taylor Vince) whose crimes are somehow connected to the proceedings at the hotel. Identity's various pieces slowly pull together to answer the hows and the whys of these questions, abandoning the carnival scares for a much deeper and more resonant mystery.

That mystery is the film's trump card, and Mangold's thoughtful development carries it to the finish line. The big twist comes about an hour in, a humdinger guaranteed to drop quite a few jaws. Most films would have saved such a mindblower for the climax, yet Identity continues on for another half-hour, confident in our willingness to follow it through. It's a near thing sometimes -- the script delivers a few smaller hairpins with varying degrees of success, and at times you can sense it struggling to keep pace with itself. But Mangold adds a few visuals to hold our attention, and the finale is chillingly satisfying, if a little implausible.

Then again, plausibility isn't the film's strong point. It works far better in the spirit of Miss Christie's work, as a rewarding intellectual exercise rather than a realistic drama. Buoyed by Cusack and Peet, Mangold crafts his maze with assurance and verve, concerned less with the individual tuns than the complete picture. Identity has its head in the right place, and for that it prospers. We tag along on virtue of its promises -- promises with which it struggles, but ultimately delivers -- and on that delicious sense of inevitability as the counter drops down towards zero.

Review published 04.28.2003.

* * *

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