`Identity' is murders done right

Movie Review

April 25, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Ten strangers find themselves trapped at an isolated hotel. Lethal nastiness ensues. Soon there are nine strangers, then eight, then seven, and so on.

The plot of Identity has been around at least as long as Agatha Christie (Ten Little Indians), and when done well, it's easy to see why. There's tension, suspense, paranoia, colorful characters interacting with one another and plenty of chances for the audience to try and outguess the screenwriters ... and then be pleasantly surprised when they're proven wrong.

Identity honors its lineage just fine. With a strong cast and a welcome feel for the absurd (one character dies by baseball bat, but not in the way you think), it's an exercise in terror and suspense with a dash of psychiatric mumbo-jumbo thrown in to keep things churning. The film mixes the psychological with the supernatural, the profane with the ridiculous, the self-indulgent with the understated, and dares you to assume anything. It's all great fun.

The scene is a stretch of road in an unnamed locale in the middle of a rainstorm that would concern even Noah. The parade of 10 characters in search of an exit begins with a chauffeur, Ed (John Cusack), and his impossibly self-absorbed actress passenger (Rebecca DeMornay, grandly overplaying). While driving down the highway on this dark and stormy night, they run into - literally - a woman standing by her derelict car, much to the horror of her obsessive-compulsive husband and young son.

Ed, an extremely stand-up guy, shoves the family into his limo and heads for the nearest phone, which turns out to be at a motel that should, by all rights, have the name Bates attached to it. His goal is to seek help, but, alas, the rain has not only washed out the road, it's knocked down the phone lines as well. Everyone's stuck where they are for the night.

Quickly, the rest of the soon-to-be-diminishing cast arrives. There's a cop (Ray Liotta) and his charge, a convicted murderer (Jake Busey) being moved to another prison. There's a Vegas hooker (Amanda Peet) on her way to Florida and a new life planting oranges. There's a pair of newlyweds (Clea Duvall and William Lee Scott) who obviously didn't give enough thought to what they were doing. And there's the night manager of the hotel, Larry (John Hawkes), who isn't exactly big on people skills.

It doesn't take long for the mayhem to begin, and while it occurs largely off-screen, the visible results are both gruesome and spectacular. With each knock-off, the survivors become more frantically desperate to figure out who's responsible. Is there a murderer among them (besides the convicted one they've got chained to a toilet)? Or, since the motel was built on an ancient Indian burial ground, is there something ghostly afoot? Or is there something that connects all 10 of them, and some otherworldly force that has drawn them to this place?

Think you've got it figured out? Oops, forgot to mention the condemned-man subplot, in which a convicted killer is getting a last-minute sentence review from a skeptical judge who has little patience for a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) babbling on about multiple-personality disorders.

Director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted) and writer Michael Cooney do a wonderful job amping up both the terror and the suspense, Mangold by keeping his camera angles tight and his trickery to a minimum, Cooney by ensuring no characters outstay their welcome. Liotta, who's never cast as someone who would win Mr. Congeniality, seems like your average cop, except ... well, there's got to be a reason Liotta was cast in the part, as opposed to, say, Tom Selleck. And Cusack is solid as always, displaying the gravity appropriate for a moral anchor with a sense of what he's anchoring.

Identity is Ten Little Indians as imagined by Alfred Hitchcock as his follow-up to Psycho. Now there's a pedigree worth spending your cinematic dollar on.

Identity

Starring John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet

Directed by James Mangold

Released by Columbia Pictures

Rated R (Language, strong violence)

Time 87 minutes

Sun * * * 1/2

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