Reviewed by: Megan Basham
Starring: John Cusack, Jake Busey, Rebecca De Mornay, Clea DuVall, Ray Liotta | Directed by: James Mangold | Produced by: Cathy Konrad | Written by: Michael Cooney, James Mangold | Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Were B-rate horror movies of the seventies and eighties bad because the jiggly, hyperactive acting was bad, because the formulaic writing was bad, or because the cheesy slasher gore was ridiculously bad? What if you took the same basic idea, gave it to a better team of writers and a far better cast of actors, what would you have then? These are the questions answered by this weekend’s top-grossing film Identity, and as turns out, having first-rate talent actually does make quite a difference.
On a dark and stormy night (its always dark and stormy, isn’t it), an array of characters as contrived as Professor Plum in the drawing room and Mrs. White in the library inadvertently collide at a ramshackle motel isolated enough to give Norman Bates the creeps. Our cast of doomed misfits includes a gallant limo driver (John Cusack), a washed-up actress (Rebecca De Mornay), an obsessive-compulsive family man, a grubby Gen-X couple, a police officer (Ray Liotta) transporting a maximum security prisoner (Jake Busey), and a Las Vegas prostitute (Amanda Peet). Oh, and, of course, there’s the sinister motel manager who starts the trouble by giving everyone large plastic room keys numbered one through ten, signaling the beginning of a countdown of murders.
Fans of Agatha Christie and Hitchcock will appreciate the stylish way “Identity”’s plot unfolds—each of our characters hides a secret that could make him or her the killer, and half the fun of the film is trying to figure out whose secret is most incriminating—and some of them are quite the doozies. However, while the characters are based on familiar horror-fare, the performances, especially those of Cusack and Peet, have great dimension, giving us a chance to really care about what’s happening in the deserted little town.
Even the set design and artistic direction play major roles as director James Mangold uses scary movie clichs like the Bates motel to make us feel like we’ve been there before, right before he sideswipes us with turns we never saw coming. By combining the look and personality of two genres, the psychological horror and the detective mystery, he comes out with an entirely new film species that is interesting, even though it doesn’t completely work.
Without giving away the film’s Machiavellian twist, it is fair to say that the movie we start out with is certainly not the one we end up with—but that’s not to say the surprise ending is necessarily a good surprise. The best plot twists, like those in the brilliant whodunits “The Sixth Sense” and “The Usual Suspects”, cause the audience to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about the story up to that point. With Identity, the story we are originally immersed in becomes irrelevant, making us (or at least me) just the slightest bit irritated that we expended so much emotional effort getting involved in it in the first place.
Surprisingly, considering this is Hollywood and one of the characters is a prostitute, when it comes to sex scenes, “Identity” takes the high road. Not only does it refrain from objectifying Peet’s character, it actually affords her a certain amount of optimistic respect. Too bad the same can’t be said for the gore and offensive language. What the film lacks in sleaze it makes up for in carnage—nothing so delicately chilling as Hitchcock’s swirling drain here. Still, if you happen to be fan of this particular genre, “Identity” is a sophisticated alternative to traditional slasher schlock, so its a shame that, like all the others, it’s also marred by a lot of worldly muck.