It’s raining. Hard. So hard that the roads are impassable, ensuring that 11 strangers will gather at an ooky motel in the middle of nowhere (built on a sacred Indian burial ground, no less), revealing their neuroses and deceptions, as, one by one, they are hideously murdered.
It sounds like a lot of horror-unto-slasher movie setups. But Identity, written by Michael Cooney and directed by James Mangold (who made the impeccable Heavy, the ambitious Cop Land, the dismal Kate & Leopold, along with Angelina Jolie’s vehicle to brother-kissing Oscars stardom, Girl, Interrupted), has some okay cards up its sleeve. These include a plot twist or two, but mostly have to do with smart performances in conventional roles.
Several scenarios emerge right away, as the film crosscuts between dark, wet scenes: in the first, a death row inmate (Heavy‘s Pruitt Taylor Vince) is to be escorted in the dead of stormy night to meet with a judge (Donnie Darko’s dad, Holmes Osborne); along with his doctor (Alfred Molina), he will plead insanity, based on new evidence of a journal, where his multiple personalities become clear.
Scenario two begins at that creepy motel, where Larry (John Hawkes) is watching scritchy tv. Suddenly, a bedraggled and bloodied George (John C. McGinley) screeches to the office door, his Alice (Leila Kenzle) unconscious in his arms. He wails, “She won’t stop bleeding!” Freeze frame and cut back to a previous moment: George and Alice are in their car, cute little son Timothy (Bret Loehr) in the backseat. Whomp: their tire blows out. Seems they’ve hit a (very) high-heeled shoe. Freeze frame and cut back: a cynical prostitute named Paris (Amanda Peet), whom you meet with some backstory in Las Vegas, is cruising in her convertible, inadvertently losing some of her clothing that she leaves strewn along the road. Freeze frame and cut back… and the pattern is clear enough. Like butterflies beating their wings, each of these moments affects some other moment, devastatingly. And oh yes, time isn’t what you think it is.
The upshot is that Alice has been hit by a limo driven by Ed (John Cusack), who fails to see her in the horrific rain because he’s being harassed by his insufferable has-been movie star client for the night, Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca DeMornay). As she natters on about her needs and her schedule and her cell phone battery, Ed takes his eyes off the road, just for a second, and hits Alice, violently. Though Caroline suggests — emphatically — that they drive on, he does the decent thing, and drives the family to that damn forlorn motel. This turns out to be the only thing to do, but it’s also a really bad thing to do. Forlorn motels on rainy nights are always bad things in the movies.
Of course, one of the prereqs for characters appearing in movies like this one is that they have no sense that they are characters in movies like this one, that is, they don’t see coming what you see coming a mile away. As these folks wait around for the rain to stop (and Ed, conveniently a former cop, sews up Alice’s leaky neck with a needle and thread), four others show up: a cop (Rhodes, played by Ray Liotta), transporting a doped-up psycho killer prisoner, Robert (Jake Busey); and a couple of already squabbling newlyweds, Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott).
Their collective cluelessness leads more or less directly to a series of individual panics and rebellions, occasioned when members of the group start showing up dreadfully dead: one is sliced up with a knife; another corpse has a baseball bat stuffed down its throat (this is, admittedly, quite grisly); and all that can be found of another is a head thunking around inside a clothes dryer (and this is clever — plenty of room for slow, point of view approaches to a series of dryers, all running, one by one).
While you might imagine such elaborately gruesome business would bring characters together, even reveal details about them, for the most part, they remain sketches, defined by single traits: scary Robert, teary Ginny, grumpy Lou, ineffectual George, unconscious Alice. All the while, the other plot (the death row inmate not quite arriving on time to meet with his doctor and lawyer at the judge’s office) travels its parallel track. It doesn’t fit with the motel plot in a way that makes you know it will fit, crucially (and not so cleverly as it might have).
Ed is pressed into service to track the killer, along with Rhodes (who lets drop that he’s a veteran of L.A.’s Rampart Division, so, in case you hadn’t noticed previously, now you can be sure: he’s shifty). As expected, they run off screen into the rain a few times, sometimes together, other times not; but when they’re on screen together, Cusack and Liotta are quite worth the price of admission: they share an intriguingly intertwined tension and trust, which leans toward the occasional pissing contest (both characters are self-contained and distrustful enough, so that neither gives up that much emotion, another bit of grist for these two compelling performers to chew on).
Still (and god love Henry Hill), it’s clear that Ed is the character with whom you want to identify. He’s rude to Caroline and suspicious of Rhodes when he needs to be; he’s kind to the child; and he appropriately confronts, then cozies up to, Paris — and Peet, not incidentally, throws some fine, even sublime, attitude: there’s really nothing this girl doesn’t do well, even the good-hearted hooker. That their relationship can’t develop much past tentative smiles and “Be carefuls” is obvious from jump, but it’s good to know that she’s picked the same guy you have.
It’s also good to know that she picks him mostly against her will and intuition. You might even trust her. Paris doesn’t know quite what you do, but she knows more than most anybody else in the movie, and not just because she’s the savvy girl in what amounts to a slasher film where the victims are adults.
Identity drops all sorts of hints toward its eventually existentialish finale (in addition to its title, references to Being and Nothingness, dead ends, empty fuel gauges), as well as decent uses of generic clichés (the shadow with knife in hand, the zappy wires ripped loose from their plugs, the monster slamming on the bathroom door, and of course, lightning and thunder galore). And while the film’s last half hour feels like it’s run itself into a corner (or, maybe, a dead end), it isn’t wholly reducible to plotty sleights of hand (though these do occur). At its slowest, Identity goes through the motions. At its shrewdest, it raises questions about your own process of watching movies, your expectations and your strategies for identifying with characters.