May 2003

Identity
Crisis

Just weeks before the summer movie season fires its opening salvo, Identity lands in theaters. It's a well cast, exceptionally photographed genre film that seeks to redefine the term "psychological" horror. It captured the number one slot at the box office on the weekend of April 25h, grossing some 17.1 million dollars. It has also garnered mostly positive reviews, a rarity for scary flicks. Yet Identity, so terribly promising in its premise and execution during the first two acts, ultimately crumbles in believability during the third act, vetting a narrative "twist" that would have seemed old-hat on Rod Serling's famous anthology, The Twilight Zone, in the 1960s.

Written by Michael Cooney (Jack Frost [1997]), Identity commences with a famous cliché: the setting of "a dark and stormy night." From there, the film introduces a gaggle of diverse, seemingly unconnected characters as they seek shelter from a ferocious storm and end up huddled together at a dilapidated, rundown motel in the middle of nowhere. Leading the unruly pack is Ed (John Cusack) a former L.A. cop, now a professional driver and a fellow who occasionally still suffers crippling blackouts. Then there's Paris Nevada (Amanda Peet), a down-on-her-luck con woman hoping to go legit by purchasing an orange grove in her home state of Florida.

Also at the motel is a nasty correctional officer named Rhodes (Ray Liotta) and his psychotic ward, a twitchy Jake Busey, and a family sidelined by a shocking car accident. A child named Timmy and his stepfather (John C. McGinley) watch as the family's matriarch slowly bleeds to death courtesy of a devastating highway impact.

Before long, these characters start to die at the motel, often in gruesome, murderous fashion. The suspicious-seeming desk clerk (a brilliant John Hawkes) looks like a natural-born suspect, and at least one character, a young woman played by Clea Du Vall suggests that the murders are supernatural in origin since the motel is built over the "Tribal Tombs" of a long-vanished Indian tribe. But as all of the tension builds and builds at the motel, the film also occasionally and mysteriously crosscuts to a "B" plot about the impromptu, middle-of-the-night mental competency hearing for a serial killer scheduled to be executed.

To reveal more of Identity's plot would do the mystery thriller a grave injustice, since so much of the film depends on surprise and twists. Suffice it to say that the opening acts are filled with shocking, visceral moments, like a series of coincidental events that lead to a brutal car accident. These harrowing moments successfully build the mystery in a stylish and visually appealing fashion. Anyone familiar with the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino will instantly recognize the Pulp Fiction/Jackie Brown style "flashback" structure of Identity, which deconstructs time, events and causality, playing back a series of strange happenings.

But finally, director James Mangold (Cop Land [1997], Kate & Leopold [2001]) can't pull it all together for a rousing third act. One problem is that all of those stylish freeze-frames and flashbacks ultimately fail to support the final sting in the movie's tail. After viewing the completed movie, the audience must rightly ask how this technique of deconstructing time supports the film's overarching psychological thesis. My assertion is that it simply doesn't. This entertaining flashback structure, stylish and involving in the extreme, is finally revealed to be nothing more than show - fireworks. Given the conclusion of the film, it doesn't make even a modicum of sense.

But jeez, what a crazy third-act Identity boasts! Is it inventive? Perhaps so. Is it different? Absolutely. But a total shock? Not even, especially for fans of The Twilight Zone or particularly attentive viewers. For one thing, it's difficult to deny that the "twist" is telegraphed from the opening credits.

Another issue is that the revelatory moment comes well before the climax and renders every succeeding moment at the motel absolutely irrelevant. An important discovery by one of the characters, Cusack's Ed, literally sucks the life out of the rest of the film's tension threshold, and it no longer becomes paramount or even particularly interesting which of the characters at the motel survives. Suspense withers on the vine and the film sputters to a halt.

On top of the faulty "twist," Identity strives for a last moment "bump." If anything, this is even more of a letdown than the previous revelatory twist. To wit, the audience understands that a killer is stalking everybody at the motel and preventing these characters from escaping. Then one character survives and escapes the locale, only to learn that the killer - surprise, surprise - ain't really dead yet. Audiences should thus ask themselves one pertinent question: why would the killer go to all the trouble of letting one character escape, travel cross-country, only then to track that character down in another state, literally? It doesn't make any sense; like the stylish flashbacks early in the film it's simply an effort to give the end of the film a spike in interest.

The advertisements for Identity make it appear to be a masterful head-game, a mind blower along the lines of last year's superior American remake of The Ring. Those ads are misleading. Though Identity is splendidly acted and in general a fun 90 minutes of horror, its climax is a monumental letdown. Unlike other movies featuring great twists, such as The Ring, The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, it does not hold up to a second viewing. Frankly, it hardly earns its climax on a first viewing, causing the film to suffer nothing less than a terminal case of Identity Crisis.