Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Ray Liotta, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall, John C. McGinley, William Lee Scott, Jake Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rebecca De Mornay, Holmes Osborne
1/2 (out of 4)
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
- Hughes Mearns, Antigonish
What does Jean-Paul Sarte look like?!!
Warning: Slight spoilers ahead
It begins like a lot of thrillers – a dark and stormy night, a fateful meeting of troubled characters at a desert highway motel, a killer on the loose. But it ends in quite a different place, and that unpredictability is what makes Identity such a neat horror film. It takes a typical plot setup and makes the most of it before pulling out the rug, something very difficult to do these days since M. Night Shyamalan made this kind of thing mainstream. Most of the time, Identity comes across as an amalgamation of Christie’s And Then There Were None, Hitchcock movies (especially Psycho), noir, and slasher films, so it can’t be called particularly original in those departments, but it’s performed so professionally by such a great cast that I hardly cared. The last half hour is filled with revelations that – and I hope I’m not spoiling too much by saying this – recall Psycho, Fight Club, Session 9, The Machinist, etc, but it does so in a way that doesn’t copy them so much as puts itself on a similar metaphysical plane. I should warn that Identity‘s last half hour will probably split the audience into love-it and hate-it groups. I’m in the former; you might be in the latter. It helps, I think, if you tend to look at the whole of cinema as an exaggeration of real life (as director Mangold suggests in his DVD commentary) and as metaphor.
Limo driver Ed (John Cusack) used to be a cop, but the stress of the job started giving him blackouts and he dropped out. Now reduced to transporting a prima donna Hollywood actress (Rebecca De Mornay), he accidentally runs over Alice (Leila Kenzle) and takes her to relative safety of a nearby motel with her socially awkward hubby (John C. McGinley) and mute son (Bret Loehr) in tow. Also converging on the motel is hooker Paris (Amanda Peet), who just wants to settle down at her Florida orange grove, a bickering couple of young newlyweds (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott), and police officer Rhodes (Ray Liotta), transporting a prisoner (Jake Busey). After being checked in by the shady proprietor Larry (John Hawkes), they wait out the storm which has blocked roads and downed phone lines (natch). It’s not long before a victim’s head is found in a dryer (a nod to My Bloody Valentine?) and Rhodes’ escaped prisoner is blamed. In the meantime, Judge Taylor (Holmes Osborne) is woken up in the middle of the night to attend an emergency hearing over the mental state of serial killer Malcolm Rivers, currently in transit. Could Rivers have escaped his transport and is now lurking around the motel killing guests?
Metaphorical hell is supposed to get coverage from Verizon next month.
So much for your dream of beating Ty Cobb's record.
The first of many red herrings includes the character of Jake Busey and the suggestion that he’s the one being discussed at the hearing by his doctor (Alfred Molina), who insists that Rivers is suffering from multiple personality disorder. Things get weird, though, when characters meet untimely ends not only from an unknown killer but from seemingly random accidents, somewhat resembling that absurd, dark comedy Very Bad Things. There’s a small jump from absurdism to existentialism, and the key to Identity lies in a book sitting in Ed’s limo – Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Identity is an existentialist thriller, and one only need a general idea of the philosophy to get the gist of what Michael Cooney (yes, from the mutant snowman movie Jack Frost) is trying to say. I have tried myself to get through this thick, 800 page book, only to be turned off by the almost impenetrable prose (which may or may not be due to the English translation and the fact that I’m an idiot). So yes, I had to find the Cliffs Notes equivalent and make some connections between Identity and Sartre’s ideas about existence preceding essence and the concept of “bad faith” (that we are all playing “roles” in our lives which keep us from being truly free).
A GQ shoot goes horribly wrong.
Identity is good enough just from the performances alone (John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Ray Liotta, John Hawkes), but I admit to being floored by the twists (there are two major ones). I will try not to spoil them, except to say that there’s something really messed up about a simulacrum being asked to take responsibility for his creator (and dealing with the dread of knowing the meaningless of his existence). (Also check out The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luis Borges). Visually, the film is dead-on, making the most of the rain-soaked landscape and wide angle shots. Subtextually, there’s plenty to chew on – the nature of existence, the genre tributes, the metaphorical motel setting, the references to Antigonish, and homages to film noir. And despite being somewhat constrained by “final twist” formula trappings, Identity is overall a smart, fun picture that I find myself returning to many times.
– Bill Gordon
The secret twist ending: he's a ghost!