In over fifteen years of reviewing movies, there have only been a handful like Identity - movies that sent me out of the theater scratching my head. Usually I know what I think about a film when it’s over. Not this one. I actually had to go home and think about it overnight before writing this review. The plot revolves around a surprise twist that is either really ingenious or really ridiculous, depending on how you look at it. It took me a while to decide whether that twist worked for me. Ultimately, I decided it did, but I could just as easily have gone the other way.
The plot seems to be that of a generic slasher movie, although the setup is very original. Ten strangers are stranded in an isolated motel on a dark, stormy night. They arrive there by different means. First we meet married couple George and Alice York (John C. McGinley and Leila Kenzle) and their young son. Driving down the road, they run over a woman’s shoe and get a flat tire. The movie then flashes back to the owner of that shoe, a prostitute named Paris (Amanda Peet). We see that the shoe came flying out of her car as she reached for something in her suitcase. Yet another flashback shows us what she was looking for. While her husband changes the tire, a limousine driven by Ed (John Cusack) strikes Alice. Going into flashback once more, we learn that Ed hit the woman because he was distracted by the aging soap opera diva (Rebecca DeMornay) in the back seat. When we return to the present moment once and for all, George takes his wife to the motel while Ed looks for the nearest hospital, only to find out the hard way that the road is washed out. He bumps into Paris, whose car also broke down in the storm. They hitch a ride with two newlyweds (William Lee Scott and Clea Duvall) and before long everyone is back at the motel.
Also checking in is a cop (Ray Liotta) who is transporting a violent criminal (Jake Busey). The motel owner (John Hawkes) hasn’t seen this much business in months and quickly rents out the rooms for $30 a pop. The criminal escapes and soon the others start turning up dead, one by one. But then the criminal too is murdered, so it becomes obvious that he is not to blame. On each dead body, a motel key is found. The first one is for room 10, then 9, and so on. The realization hits: someone intends to kill them all until there are none.
Meanwhile, a parallel story deals with a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) who is attempting to prevent a mentally ill man (Pruitt Taylor Vince) from being executed for murder. He argues to the judge in a late-night hearing that it’s immoral to kill someone who probably did not know what he was doing. There is, of course, a connection between this guy and the others at the motel, but the screenplay conveniently holds some of its cards back to keep you from guessing.
As I sat watching Identity I was impressed by how technically well-made it was. I was also struck by how “by-the-numbers” the plot was. Since it is openly revealed in the film’s trailer, I assume there is no problem revealing that all the characters share the same birthday. On the surface, this appeared to be a formula slasher movie about a killer who butchers everyone who happened to be born on May 10. But there was a nagging feeling in the back of my head. John Cusack doesn’t star in cheap-o slasher movies. Neither does an actor as accomplished as Ray Liotta. Nor do Amanda Peet and John C. McGinley. James Mangold previously directed Girl, Interrupted and Kate & Leopold; he doesn’t make this kind of picture either. Somehow, I figured, there must be more to this story that captured their interest.
There is – although you don’t find out about it until the movie has only 20 minutes left to go. I wouldn’t dream of blowing the surprise, although I can safely say that I was impressed by how original it was. Identity doesn’t wrap itself up the way normal slasher movies do. To be honest, I guessed who the killer was (it’s not that hard), but this isn’t really about who killed everyone. Instead, the movie is more idea-based; it’s about how the murders were possible to begin with. How do ten strangers with the same birthday “coincidentally” end up at the same motel in the middle of nowhere? That’s the part that surprised me.
The film’s answer is kind of intriguing. I liked the fact that it went for the unconventional and ambitious. The problem is that, intriguing though it may be, the explanation is also kind of laughable if you try to apply it to real life. To make it work, the screenplay has to paint itself into a corner, doubling back on its pre-revelation self in order to create some sense of closure. (See it and you’ll know what I am talking about.) In other words, the movie gives you its explanation, then asks you to carry on for another ten minutes as though the explanation had never been given in the first place. If the big revelation were not so theoretically unsound, perhaps that approach might have worked better. Because it doesn’t really hold water, we’re left trying to conceptualize a very bizarre prospect that makes it hard to keep caring about the characters. It’s a case of the ending being cool, but perhaps a little too cool for its own good.
Technically, Identity has a lot going for it. The picture looks great, and the first-rate cast deliver solid performances. It was the ending that made it hard on me. I thought about this movie on my drive home from the theater. I thought about it all night. The more I thought about it, the more some of the pieces of the puzzle started to fit together. The movie’s subtle clues only became clear to me with some contemplation. After all this, I have decided that, yes – I do like Identity. I have had to sit through some mighty unpleasant slasher movies in my day. This one aims to do something unique. The surprise ending doesn’t really hold up in reality, but it works in the context of a movie. You have to approach Identity using “movie logic,” not normal everyday logic. If you can do that, this is an interestingly trippy story. If not, the whole thing falls completely to pieces.
( out of four)
Identity is rated R for strong violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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