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Identity (2003)
Director: James Mangold

review by Paul Higson

Advance publicity came late in the form of a quick set of atmospheric downpour rain scenes, the usual selective interviews and repeated mention of a super twist in the tale, a secret to be kept. The title of James Mangold's horror film was too big a final clue, a giveaway to an old hand like me, someone who once penned a speculative screenplay titled 'Thine' I entered the cinema having already sussed the film out. Back in 1982 the identity of the killer in Jeffrey Obrow's Pranks was that stereotypical slasher movie character, the practical joke playing youth, and in the 1972 exploitation film Vengeance Is Mine a mafia family are offed one by one, the killer finally revealed to be... the priest. You can give away too much with a title. Identity is not only too big a clue it is also too rat-a-tat and ignominious a title, shy as many horror films are these days to admit to their genre. 'Crisis' would have been a better title. Still, with no-one grassing the film up I could still have been wrong in my asshole assumptions, permitting me to enter into the guessing game all of the same. A sturdy cast and a director with three sound feature credits behind him, Heavy (1995), Copland (1997) and Girl, Interrupted (1999) - he releases his films in odd numbered years for luck, approaching the horror film for the first time added to the promise of a good film.
   A rain beaten rundown motel is refuge to ten adults and a child, floods hemming them in on either side of the highway. While introductions are underway the story is backtracked repeatedly, an unfortunate series of events unfolding, a terrible road accident, trauma, villainy and big fibs criss-crossing in the film's first act, dizzying and distracting us. The fashion sense on most of the characters should make intelligent viewers immediately suspicious, particularly when resoundingly contradicted by such as arguments over mobile phones, though the running time is so busy in its playful fracture that most would not be blamed for not noticing. John Cusack is an ex-detective now a chauffeur transporting Rebecca De Mornay's fading film star when they run someone down. A hustler (Amanda Peet), newlyweds (Clea Duvall and William Lee Scott), a family of three and the jittery motel keeper complete the cornered and shortly to pull in to shelter is a hardy cop (Ray Liotta) escorting a violent criminal (Jake Busey). The criminal escapes and the first victim's decapitated head is found in a tumble dryer. Nothing is as apparent as initially seems, though´┐Ż and as the clues get weirder and the deaths odder questions begin screaming in every direction.
   Post-modern? Why not! American gothic? That too! There is as strong an atmosphere and sense of a Sapphire And Steel adventure or Doctor Who's Carnival Of Monsters. And let's admit to a heavy dash of Fight Club! Meanwhile, there is a connection between the rising incidents at the motel and a final review on a condemned serial killer; his appointment with the execution chamber half a day away. There are far too many signposts, the greedy scriptwriters believing that there is confusion enough to hide it, too many options for the continuation of the story arise and they try to use them all. Remarkably it is carried off for most of the running time, but is pushed a step too far for the final minutes; it's an unnecessary all too demanding final act, a tweak too beyond. There is pressure on scriptwriters to cavort with their tales, too much so, a multiple of angles are more preferable to a multiple of twists, and even those writers who realise that probably have to come up against studios that won't understand it. Identity is clearly a film that was shot with alternative endings all of which will probably find their way onto the DVD, a thrashing electric cable in the downpour is too tempting, there must be a death lined up to go with that. There is no let up on the story, as in Mangold's previous films there is never a dull moment, even if the dialogue is a little short on the quotable this time out, but then as the story and script originator is Michael Cooney, the man who gave us the Jack Frost killer snowman movies, I think we've done quite well. No complaint on the performances, Cusack stands in for the audience searching and striving for the solution, Liotta an entity and a half, Peet an up-to-no-good pretty while John Hawkes as the weasel-like motel man has the most to play with. And if I can single out great performances in a film without getting to John C. McGinley how sterling a cast must that be! Taylor Vince, Liotta and Duvall are returnees from Mangold's aforementioned three films.
   It is entertainingly gruesome to start with but the bloody horror succumbs to the wildly accelerated plot moves and affects the overall balance. Insecurities aside, this is a gimmick riot that will satisfy to a point, if only it had known when to apply a little pressure to the breaks. Maybe they tried and like the several occasions in the film the vehicle could not but screech and crash horrendously. It's an enjoyable film in need of a trim.
Identity

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