May 9, 2003

Cusack's new horror flick transcends its influences... sort of

Identity has all the trappings of a traditional horror movie: a secluded motel in the middle of the desert; a flash flood that knocks down phone lines and makes roads impassible; and a series of gruesome, inexplicable deaths that has everyone wondering who's next. It is also a crafty whodunit that positions the audience as the detective, forcing us to suspect each of the characters in turn. The film hosts a medley of actors. There are Hollywood standards, indie crop, television stars and even a blast from the past (Rebecca DeMornay, ironically cast here as a washed-up actress). John Cusack stars as a shrewd limo driver; he tempers the otherwise unbearable suspense with his characteristic cool. Also notable is sultry Amanda Peet who resists being simply a sex object by bringing charm and wit to her role as a prostitute. Ray Liotta is a rugged and enigmatic cop transporting a sinister prisoner played with menace by Jake Busey. Adding to this hodgepodge is John C. McGinley as a scared and sensitive husband and stepfather, in a role that is drastically divergent from his personality on the TV show Scrubs. Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott complete the group as unhappy newlyweds on their way home from Las Vegas. These diverse characters enrich the film, making the impending disaster all the more unwelcome with their quirky personalities.

The film opens with a series of bizarre coincidences that leads all the characters to the desolate motel, run by a sleazy, slightly hysterical manager played by John Hawkes. Once there they are trapped by natural and supernatural means. Then--surprise--people begin to die. The group has no way out and no idea who to turn to. So, in typical thriller fashion, they must catch the killer before he catches them, which is, obviously, more difficult than they could have imagined.

The characters each have a past, and screenwriter Michael Cooney simultaneously alludes to and withholds the details of their lives. Each brings to the motel a mix of menace and pathos, and the haunting possibility that they might be behind the events unfolding on this rainy night. Though Cooney introduces the possibility of a supernatural threat, he never lets his characters off the hook. The result is a thrilling cycle of suspicion, dependence and fear that simultaneously exhausts and enthralls the viewer.

To complement Identity's intense plot structure, director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted; Copland; and, unfortunately, Kate and Leopold) uses a stark approach. His confidence in the work of his cast and screenwriter Cooney encouraged him to let these aspects take center stage. Mangold focuses on atmosphere, allowing the natural elements of the rainy desert night to do much of his work for him. He abides by the adage that less is more, and utilizes the essentials of scary storytelling--the creaking gate, swinging sign, and flickering light--to their full effect. Most importantly, he has an uncanny knack for turning coincidence into horror.

Cooney's willingness to incorporate elements from various types of horror films drives the movie and neatly fits with the final sinister conclusion. Imagine Psycho meets The Usual Suspects. Identity is at once a slasher flick, a lesson in Hitchcockian suspense, and a psychological thriller. When Ginny (DuVall) insists that the killings are connected to an Indian burial ground that lies around the motel, the prospect is not only a comment on horror movie conventions, but also an eerie possibility in a world where absolutely nothing, not even identity, is certain.

This multi-dimensionality makes Identity unique, but it will also be the ground for complaint. As the film's final twists play out, the initial horror fades into questions of real and unreal. These twists will certainly divide the audience between those who relish the traditional horror formula and those who appreciate the elevation of an otherwise routine genre flick into the realm of the psychological. For some, the introduction of this element may take the edge off the more gruesome scenes. And yet, it is sure to have the viewer puzzling over the plot's minor details long after the film's final reflective frame, an accomplishment that not many horror films can boast. Whether you become more or less invested in the film as its final sequences unfold, it is hard not to be gripped by Identity's smart and distinctive take on traditional horror fare.