It’s a common enough formula for a suspense movie. Isolate a group of characters that are strangers to each other in a desolate location and then start killing them off. As the body count and tension starts to proportionally rise, throw some twists and turns at the audience to try to keep them as confused as the characters in the film are and hope that it all makes sense by the final fade to black. The new thriller Identity from director James (Kate & Leopold) Mangold definitely follows this formula but manages to bring a few surprises into the mix.
The isolated location in Identity is a dilapidated motel in the Nevada desert run by John Hawkes. Monsoon-like rain has trapped several travelers there- John Cusack is the former-cop turned chauffer for spoiled actress Rebecca De Mornay. While driving through the rain he had hit Leila Kenzle with his car while she was helping husband John C. McGinley fix a flat tire with her son Bret Loehr looked on. Ray Liota is a police officer transporting murder Jake Busey. Heart of gold hooker Amanda Peat is on her way home to Florida to start her life over and Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott are a young, just married couple.
The plot is a basic riff on Agatha Christie’s The Little Indians and the movie is smart enough to have the characters acknowledge it themselves. But as the killer plays cat and mouse with its victims, the script plays with the audience, leading them on with just enough information to trick the audience into believing that they’re out thinking the movie before throwing an unexpected narrative curve ball. The film contains plenty of twists, clues, surprises and red herrings that aren’t necessarily red herrings to keep the viewer guessing. Director Mangold keeps the proceedings moving at a brisk pace, never padding out the film’s roughly hour-and-a-half running time. One surprise is springing the film’s big reveal about two-thirds of the way through, leaving the movie spinning off in a new thematic direction away from the standard thriller formula and leaving one character in particular to face the consequences of this twist. Even then, the film doesn’t play out in a straightforward manner, still holding a few twists up its sleeve.
The cast here turns in fine performances all around. It’s nice to see Cusack stretching his acting muscles after his recent string of romantic comedies, turning in a rather intense performance as a former cop who takes charge of the situation. Liotta turns in another anger-tinged performance that, while good, he is in danger of being typecast into for the rest of his career. Busey is good as the sneering convict but unfortunately isn’t given much screen time.