Identity. Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by James Mangold. Written by Michael Cooney. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated R (for violence and language). Starring John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Alfred Molina, Clea Du Vall, Rebecca DeMornay, John C. McGinley, John Hawkes, Jake Busey.


It starts out all too familiarly: a group of strangers find themselves stranded at an out of the way motel during a rain storm; one by one, they start to die, while the survivors rush to find the murderer among them. The basic plot of Identity is so familiar that, when you first start watching you know that Identity will be one of two things. It will either be hopelessly cliched, or it will shatter the conventions of the typical horror thriller. Luckily, it turns out to be the second, and by the time the movie was over, I knew I had seen one of the most original movies of this ilk to have come out in recent memory.

A severe thunderstorm has blocked off all the roads, and the aforementioned strangers are forced to take refuge in the motel. They are: Ed (John Cusack), a limo driver; Caroline (Rebecca De Mornay), the fading movie star that Ed was driving; Rhodes (Ray Liotta), a cop making a prisoner transfer; Maine (Jake Busey), Rhodes's prisoner; Paris (Amanda Peet), a hooker on her way to Florida; Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott), a newly married couple; the motel manager, Larry (John Hawkes); and George (John C. McGinley), an ineffectual man with a badly injured wife and a broody stepson. The characters are introduced through a series of quick, loosely connected flashbacks. This method works extremely well, and helps establish Identity's unconventional structure.

After all of the strangers arrive, the murders start. Ed and Rhodes, the two people in the group most apparently in control, rush to stop the murderer before he (or she) kills again. But can any of the characters be trusted? It seems that all of the characters have something to hide. Why would a limo driver have a gun? Why is there a bloody hole in the back of Rhodes's shirt? Why does the manager have a picture on his desk that he hides whenever anyone enters the room? By the end of the movie, and the revelation of its shocking twist, all of these questions will have been answered.

Running parallel to the motel plot is the story of a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) who is attempting to get a convicted murderer on death row (Pruitt Taylor Vince) off by proving his insanity. The two stories are seemingly unconnected, and part of the brilliance of the movie is the way Mangold manages to keep them separate until the exact moment when he sends them colliding together.

Identity does contain a major plot twist (and then some minor ones following), but it is built around the story, not the other way around. It's not expected, but there are enough clues dropped so that the observant audience member can piece it together before its revealed. And, like Fight Club, it is revealed with a good twenty minutes of movie left, so it is far from the most important part of the movie. However, this is also where the film's only real (and relatively minor) problem stems from. The time allowed after the revelation is not quite enough to fit the exposition left, and the pacing begins to feel a little rushed at this point. If another ten or fifteen minutes had been added at the end, Identity would have received a four-star rating.

The performances are strong across the board. Cusack and Liotta, as the two main stars, play to the images that have been attributed to the actors over the years (the everyman and the heavy, respectively), but they are talented actors, and the characters they play may not be as they originally seem. This is because, as their roles become more defined, Cusack and Liotta use body language to express hidden facets of their characters' personalities. The strongest performance, however, belongs to John Hawkes. His role as the wily Larry is effortless, and accounts for much of the humor in this otherwise dark film.

Identity is the best horror movie I've seen in years. It doesn't resort to cheap tactics to scare or creep out the audience, and the scares result more from the atmosphere than the content. At first, it seems to be nothing more than yet another retread of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but, as Identity proves with its characters and story, first appearances can be deceiving.

© 2003 Matt Noller