[box cover]

Identity

Natural selection has allowed human beings to evolve all sorts of helpful reflexes. We quite naturally understand that fire can harm us just as much as it may help. We are able to hear during the paralysis of sleep, and thus avoid predators. Our noses have a miraculous capacity to sense the smallest hint of harmful bacteria in food. We have an instictive aversion to poisonous things like insects and snakes. And we damn well know that you don't want to be stuck at a creepy motel in the middle of nowhere when it's pitch-dark outside and raining so bad you figure somebody, somewhere must have just finished an ark. Such is the location of scenarist Michael Cooney and director James Mangold's intricate, clever Identity (2003) — the film begins as a distraught husband (John C. McGinley) rushes into a Nevada motel lobby with his near-dead wife (Leila Kenzle), who has just been struck on the highway by a car. The story then traces backwards through several characters to show how each contributed some small act of kismet that led to the accident. And as it happens, they all find themselves stranded at the motel, with no working phones and flooded roads in every direction. Chauffeur Ed (John Cusack) is driving a snooty actress (Rebecca De Mornay); Paris (Amanda Peet) is a hooker ready to cash out and retire in Florida; motel manager Larry (John Hawkes) doesn't like hookers, and doesn't like folks poking around his place either; newlyweds Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott) don't seem to like each other very much; and worst of all, police officer Rhodes (Ray Liotta) winds up at the motel with a mass-murderer (Jake Busey) whom he's transporting to a pre-execution hearing. It appears there's little to do but ride out the storm — until somebody turns up dead. And then another body is found. And then somebody realizes all of the corpses have motel keys on them, counting downwards from nine.... Identity is a fun little throwback to the pulp-thriller genre, with each character sketched in no more detail than the script requires. It's a bit of Agatha Christie meets Alfred Hitchcock, with a dash of road-movie dread by way of Edgar G. Ulmer's seminal 1945 noir Detour. It also has a cast that's top-notch. Getting either Ray Liotta or John Cusack at the top of the bill would be good enough — actually casting them opposite each other, as a cop and an ex-cop on the hunt for a killer, is an appealing combination. Each approaches the material in his own natural style: Liotta conveys an intensity that corks a bottled rage, while Cusack is wry, rudderless, and always just on the edge of despair. The supporting actors are likewise welcome (although it would be unfair to say who gets the most screen-time in a movie like this), leading to the inevitable sucker-punch. Yes, Identity is a film with a twist, and after movies like The Usual Suspects and Fight Club elevated the plot-twist to a new form of art, each Hollwyood successor seems to be trying to top the one that came before it. Suffice it to say that Identity has a curveball that's high-concept — like, 30,000 feet high. Either you'll see it coming a mile away or find yourself slightly disoriented as the script shifts gears. It's clever, but for all of its inherent wit, such makes the film something that can only be enjoyed to the fullest just once. After that, it's like watching a card trick when you already know what the dealer has in his sleeve. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Identity features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Features include a commentary with director Mangold (with spoilers, so finish the movie first), four deleted scenes with commentary, a Starz featurette (14 min.), three storyboard-to-scene comparisons, and filmographies. Keep-case.
—JJB



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