Rated R - Running Time: 1:30 - Released 4/25/03

It’s hard to talk about James Mangold’s intriguing horror film Identity without giving away its main conceptual conceit. Therefore, to help preserve this highly effective film’s success (which it is my sincere hope will encourage more like it), I’ll just have to tell all the would-be critics not to walk out during the first half hour when it appears to be just another second-rate, badly acted bloodbath complete with the full complement of jump scenes, mistaken villains, and red herrings. This movie has some bad effects, some ill-conceived dialogue, and some hackneyed horror clichés, but there’s a reason for it all. No wonder director Mangold, armed with Michael Cooney’s screenplay, was able to recruit such an effective and well-known cast. While Cooney’s previous output has not been spectacular (probably his best-known work so far was 1997’s snowman-gone-wrong thriller Jack Frost), this script is deceptively clever, revealing its depth only after masquerading as a run-of-the-mill slasher story for the first couple of reels with only Mangold’s clever pacing and mixed-up timeline to distinguish it. It is during this deceptive period that we meet the characters, played by a surprising list of capable actors, before Cooney’s plot shifts gears into the psychological riddle it becomes.

Following a brief introduction about a death-row inmate’s psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) making a last-ditch insanity plea hours before his client’s (Pruitt Taylor Vince) execution, we begin the twisted story of a group of strangers who meet at a rundown roadside motel on a rainy night in Nevada as the result of a series of bizarre and unlikely occurrences. There’s a married couple (John C. McGinley, Leila Kenzle) whose relationship already seems strained before she is hit by a car and seriously injured; her young son Timothy (Bret Loehr), who witnesses his mother’s accident while his strangely affected stepfather is changing a tire; the driver of the car that hits her, a chauffeur and ex-cop named Ed (John Cusack) who has been hired to drive a temperamental actress (Rebecca De Mornay) across the country; a hooker (Amanda Peet) trying to make it back home to Florida; a young psychic woman (Clea Duvall) and her new husband (William Lee Scott); a Nevada correctional officer (Ray Liotta) and his prisoner (Jake Busey), whom he is transferring to another facility; and finally the owner of the motel where they all meet (John Hawkes), whose establishment just happens to rest on that most traditional of horror-movie real estate holdings—an ancient Indian burial ground.

After we meet all these characters, come to know their complex, deceptive interrelationships, and are given reason to suspect just about every one of them, the bloody fun begins. Although the injured mother clings to life despite the inability on anyone’s part to contact help or get her to a hospital (the rain has flooded the roads and knocked out the phone service), other members of our crew start perishing in highly unpleasant ways. As the remaining members soon find out, each successive corpse is left with a sort of calling card—a key from the motel with a room number on it. The first victim has key number 10, the second number 9, and so on. Seemingly being victimized in a macabre countdown, the sopping-wet motel guests investigate the crime scenes, suspect each other, try to figure out who will be next, and generally freak out. It is not until they compare ID’s that they begin to notice a pattern, but that upsets them—and us—even more.

The rather generic nature of this film’s set-up is mitigated by the director’s stylistic choices, including on-set atmosphere (the dark, the constant rain, the strange lighting) and post-production/editing effects (mini-flashbacks, stop-action cuts, reiterations of scenes from different viewpoints that reveal previously unknown details). Finally, when the pieces begin to fall into place, the film’s intrigue goes into overdrive, explaining the twisted reasons for all the unlikely occurrences that suddenly make them much more credible. The actors are good, especially those more established talents who have more screen time (Cusack, Peet, Liotta); the writing is clever and risky, but it’s Mangold’s excellent sense of just what to bring out and just when that makes this movie so effective. ****½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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