Identity (2002) ***
Directed by James Mangold. Written by Michael Cooney. Photography, Phedon Papamichael. Editing, David Brenner. Production design, Mark Friedberg. Music, Alan Silvestri. Produced by Cathy Konrad. Cast: John Cusack , Ray Liotta , Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall , John C. McGinley, William Lee Scott, Jake Busey, Rebecca DeMornay. A Columbia release. 87 minutes. Rated R.
There's nothing new under the sun, or under the klieglights of shooting movies. With its own twists, "Identity" is derivative of several sub-genres, notably the "Motley Group in an Enclosed Setting," as in soldiers pinned down in a foxhole, passengers on a stagecoach or a plane or a ship, guests in a hotel (Grand or otherwise), jurors in a courtroom, etc. etc.
More specifically "Identity" is an inheritor of movies from Agatha Christie novels. Not those with sleuths Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple but other items, notably "Ten Little Indians" made by Rene Clair as "And Then There Were None" (1945), the best of several versions that followed, under either title. In it, ten people who do not know one another are gathered within an island mansion after receiving a strange invitation. The guests are puzzled and killed one by one.
In "Identity" the plot is much more contrived. We are on a rural, two-lane road in the wilds of Nevada. It is storming, raining, thundering, lightning like mad. The road is flooded. Cars get into trouble. Accidents happen. All the characters need help for major reasons (don't ask.) Telephone lines are down. Cell phones do not work.
The travelers consist of a fading star and her ex-cop driver; a family of three; a pretty hooker with piles of earnings; two newlyweds; a policeman and his killer prisoner. In various ways they all end up in a shabby, empty, isolated motel with a scummy manager. Aha! you'll say. Vague shades of the infamous Bates Motel in Hitchcock's "Psycho!" Well, yes. And no. I will not elaborate, but just state that this is a horror film with major twists, and, to its credit, outside the "déjà vu" categories of the supernatural or sci-fi mayhem.
In sight, sound, events and characters extreme intensity reigns - with overkill in every sense of that word. Strong stuff. Take no prisoners. Pump up the volume. At times this works well, at other times it is just OK, or else climbs to the "enough already!" level. All peaks and no valleys, as in music played "fortissimo" from start to finish, is counterproductive.
Additional complications and audience puzzlers for the weave in psychology, psychiatry, multiple personalities. While those aspects are part and parcel of, and justifications for, the film's title, they are hindrances; they might make you yearn for the holy simplicity of Hitchcock and the red herrings of Christie.
The unrelenting cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is demanding and quite impressive. So are the performances of the cast whose exaggerated, over-the-top parts must have been hell to rehearse and play. In the leading role is John Cusack, long a major favorite of mine and one of the rare cases where his presence in a movie, any movie, makes me see that work.
I hesitated about the rating of "Identity," then decided on a third star partly because this work qualifies for my BBNMM club, "Bring Back the Ninety Minutes Movies."