***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Alfred Molina
screenplay by Michael Cooney
directed by James Mangold
by Walter Chaw Although by the end it isn't nearly as interesting as it is clever, James Mangold's take on the slasher genre Identity is a tricky little beast that fits in peculiarly well with the recent trend of deconstructive horror films (such as The Ring and Soft for Digging). Its use of Hughes Mearns's haunting "Antigonish" (1899, "I was going up the stair/I met a man who wasn't there!/He wasn't there again today!/I wish, I wish he'd stay away!") reminds of Dario Argento's nursery dirge in Deep Red, while the film's telescoping storytelling style evokes, of all things, the caper genre. With its title suggesting a certain high-mindedness, when a character glances for a swollen moment at Sartre's Being and Nothingness, it tells too much of what the film will be about: the philosopher's existential definition of consciousness projected onto reality and the dangers of mauvaise foi (bad faith), the process by which people, within themselves, elude responsibility for what they do. Still, the film is such a professional exercise on every level that its obviousness--better, its literalness--can be forgiven.
Eleven people are stranded in a thunderstorm at a hotel in the middle of a Psycho nowhere: a chauffer (Ed (John Cusack)) and his fading-actress passenger (Rebecca De Mornay); a family of three (John C. McGinley, Leila Kenzle, Bret Loehr); bickering newlyweds (Clea DuVall, William Lee Scott); a cop (Rhodes (Ray Liotta)) and his collar (Jake Busey); a hooker with a dream (Amanda Peet); and would-be Norman Bates Larry (John Hawkes), the motel proprietor. Identity suggests the supernatural as each of the characters is killed off in turn and each victim (including a shower-curtain homage that sort of defines the difference between "homage" and "rip-off") dispatched in a nifty (and often gory) way.
That there are eleven people and ten potential kills is a clue; that the movie plays absolutely straight with its central motif is the payoff. Written with a surprisingly agile ear by Jack Frost (not the Michael Keaton one) screenwriter Michael Cooney, Identity is marked by its excellent ensemble and, despite the pyrotechnics of the premise, its reserve. Only DuVall, an actress I have liked (and one who worked with Mangold on Girl, Interrupted), grates with what appears to be a tribute to namesake Shelley Duvall's performance in The Shining--her key scene being one in a bathroom, natch. All of the would-be victims and murderers of Identity, in fact, appear to be sly genre tributes, with Mangold's assured direction weaving a deceptively complicated extratextual web around the proceedings. It's the "Hotel California" in movie-form, featuring an endless amount of imploding pleasures for the horror fan (a scene in the motel coin-op Laundromat is destined for classic status), but the picture gets in its own way, ultimately, with its ironic slavishness to the formula ending. For a movie that seems to be hinting at exploding the boundaries of the form, it collapses at the conclusion, helpless before the dictates of the form.
Still and all, Identity looks fantastic, and it's acted solidly and plotted with some audacity and intelligence. It tackles things like memory and, of course, identity in ways that, while simplistic and pre-chewed to a degree, nonetheless distinguish the picture above others of its ilk. It has a dark, Very Bad Things sort of morality and logic that makes its bloody killings all the more icy; I suspect that repeated viewings will hold rewards for attentive viewers. It's a smartly-executed picture more than an overly smart one, but what Identity is at its black heart is solid and satisfying--its best moment a throwaway one as you come to realize that this motel and what it represents has as its greatest boast a flashing neon promise of "Free TV." Taken in context with its central revelation, it speaks volumes about its own self-referential nature, and volumes, too, of the state of modern viewership. If only the rest of the film were as subtle and brilliant, Identity would be an auto-critical masterpiece rather than just a really good pop cultural riff. Originally published: April 25, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Hitting DVD in world-class 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and pan-and-scan transfers (sandwiched together on the same side of a dual-layer platter) from Columbia TriStar, Identity aims to please its fans on disc via the debut of a special extended version that cohabits with the theatrical version through the miracle of seamless branching. Clocking in at 91:04 (making it one minute and five seconds longer than the theatrical cut), the extended cut adds a negligible detail to the first act and changes several shots in the film's epilogue to clearly illustrate the reality of what's being implied--in this regard, the original ending has more integrity by betraying greater confidence in the audience. Three technical caveats accompany the "film with alternate ending and additional scene," as it's called on the packaging: During the branched sequences, which are accessible only when viewing Identity in widescreen, the picture's stupendous Dolby Digital 5.1 mix switches to a much blander Dolby Surround recording, while James Mangold's director commentary, if selected, drops out altogether. (The alterations go unaided by any sort of contextualization from either the filmmakers or the studio.)
Under the supplementals sub-menu of this Special Edition, find a promotional featurette, further deleted scenes, and other ephemera. "Starz - On the Set" (15 mins.) could be comfortably retitled "The John and Amanda Show": the dominant interview subjects, Mr. Cusack and Ms. Peet tend to squander their copious screentime celebrating the interaction of their characters. (Peet openly petitions for a sexual encounter with Cusack to be incorporated into the script.) Mangold provides optional commentary over a quartet of deletions--all in finished anamorphic widescreen and stereo sound--made for reasons of conscientious pacing; Peet contributes comic beats to three of the four elisions that offer another perfectly valid reason for the edits, so exhausted is her coquettish-gamine shtick by now. Cast/crew filmographies, a trio of handsomely arranged storyboard-to-film comparisons, and Identity's trailer round out the DVD. Mangold's aforementioned feature-length yakker is interesting (he says he borrowed from such unlikely sources as samurai movies), but I was surprised to hear him leave The Crowded Room, a conceptually similar project to which Cusack was attached for many years, out of the discussion--Identity must have seemed like a consolation prize to its star. Originally published: August 12, 2003.