Ten, nine, eight, seven... as the 10 random strangers in Identity realize that they are targets for elimination, this new suspense thriller spooks its audience. At this moment of realization, we find ourselves in a loose adaptation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (a.k.a. Ten Little Indians). Now, this moment could invoke one of two sentiments: nostalgia for traditional murder mystery yarns or disappointment that the rest of the film would stutter until the blank identification of the culprit. The former crowd hangs on to red herrings, while the latter resents the awful predictability of the next hour and a half.
And so it goes with Identity, which opened on April 25. Directed by James Mangold, the film delivers John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Ray Liotta and assorted actors trapped in a deadly game of cat and mouse. The plot is threadbare, as expected, and characterization is nearly nonexistent. Everyone seems to be walking around as doomed stereotypes, lost lambs to the slaughter. Oddly enough, this may be appropriate -- or not; the film is not entirely sure of its own logical universe.
The 10 strangers, one by one, arrive at a creepy motel during a disastrous thunderstorm, and their meeting each other is a series of complex twists of fate. A family of three loses a tire in the storm, leading to a roadside collision and a near-fatal accident. All involved parties take refuge at a festering motel. Meanwhile, an officer and his recently paroled convict, with roads closed, are forced to pull into the same motel. Add a freshly married-in-Vegas couple and the disturbing, kleptomaniacal motel manager, and our 10 little Indians are ready for some slicing and dicing.
Once John Cusack, a limo driver, discovers the head of a washed-up movie star in a washing machine, the hunt for the killer begins, and a psychotic convict has escaped. Apparently, our lovable convict (Jake Busey -- son of actor Gary Busey) was responsible for mass homicide -- at a motel, of all places. This spine-chilling revelation leads to predictable dialogue and contrived scenarios. When a series of motel keys are discovered at the scene of the crimes -- keys to rooms 10, nine, eight, etc -- the audience develops standard expectations for the rest of the film. Luckily, Mangold disorients the audience with a curve or two (or three).
Numerologists across the nation are sure to find this fascinating, but as Mangold guides us along each twisted deviation from out expected narrative, with matter-of-fact condescension mind you, we can't help but throw up our hands and abandon the role of amateur sleuth.
The allusions to Agatha Christie, unfortunately, do not materialize after the first hour. Instead of carefully plotted clues and dialogue, the film prefers to blindside us with the truth behind every door, playing a game of tug and war with audience emotions. Mangold invokes Hitchcock and employs a carefully executed homage to Psycho. However, his post-modern interpretation of that seminal 1960 shocker feels borrowed from a critical reading of Hitchcock's thematic complications. Admirable in this pursuit, screenwriter Michael Cooney deserves credit for delivering a cinematic idea without simply transporting The Sixth Sense and The Others into a Hitchcockian mindset. The whirlwind screenplay is fascinatingly fresh, except we don't realize this until the film finally ends.
From this point on, I have to be elusive, and those who have seen the film will know exactly what I am talking about. This is one of those critic-proof films, as it dares the journalist to reveal anything about the convoluted story before the audience can participate in the exchange. Endlessly precise in its convictions, the film defies discussion unless you share the secret, and even at that point, not everything is clear.
By the time Mangold has attacked the audience with his sleights of hand, and the pieces of the identity crises on the screen start to assemble into a clear, fine path to redemption, the film stumbles even further with an extremely condescending tone that panders to the viewer. Yes, we get it, and we are admittedly intrigued with the secret of Identity, but is that all there is? As soon as we figure it out, we resent the simplicity of the filmmakers to explain everything with excruciating detail to the dumb audience.
Finally, after the goose bumps disappear, a craving for more twists and enrapturing theories arrives. Instead of employing a Lynchian abstract quality, or even an ambiguity found in Hitchcock, the film turns into a literal modernist narrative, and nothing more. What could have resulted in an endlessly fascinating film turns into a watered-down version of a Psychology 101 lecture.