identity-2003-13Full disclosure: I have little patience with thrillers that play with you for its own superior sake, leading up to a big twist ending designed to make you feel like a sap. Unless it’s done in fun (Brian De Palma’s specialty) or driving at something larger than simply the filmmakers’ dominion over a gullible audience, what’s the point? You’ve just spent a chunk of the day being manipulated for nothing. The rain-swept, brooding, violent thriller Identity is one such elaborately crafted necklace of nothing. The characters are not people; they’re not even pawns. They’re just pieces of the puzzle.

Fate, or Michael Cooney’s contrived screenplay, brings together ten pieces — er, people — on a dark and stormy night: limo driver Ed (John Cusack) and his movie-star employer Caroline (Rebecca DeMornay); detective Rhodes (Ray Liotta) and a vicious killer he’s transporting (Jake Busey); an unhappily and recently married young couple (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott); a star-crossed family of three (stepdad John C. McGinley, mom Leila Kenzle, and little son Bret Loehr); and Larry (John Hawkes), manager of the remote motel everyone converges on. The roads are flooded, the phone lines are out, and people start to die. Something nasty is found in a clothes dryer; one character is permanently silenced with a baseball bat; and so on. Identity is a guess-what’s-real slasher movie with high secretive overtones. There’s more to what we’re seeing than we’re seeing.

The question is whether we care about seeing the Big Truth. Every now and then, we move away from the body count at the motel and sit in on a hearing concerning a condemned prisoner. Is this the Busey character, or someone else? This is a very short movie, so it’s obvious to anyone who’s seen a movie before that there’s something fishy about this hearing, which appears to be taking place on the same dark stormy night. In such thrillers, any apparently pointless scene is really there for a reason — maybe the Big Reason.

A good cast is enacting this fancy rubbish; what drew them to the material besides its self-conscious cleverness is beyond me, since they rarely get to push the tight envelope they’re stuffed into. Cusack, as always, exudes an aura of intelligent decency, which of course sets you up to think he might be the mysterious killer (especially after he talks about his history of blackouts). Most of the other characters pretty much are what they appear to be, though each has his or her secrets and shames. Mainly, the rigid control of the screenwriter rules the day. There was probably precious little improv on the set, and few discussions of character depth, since everyone is no more or less than what the script requires.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of Identity is its director. James Mangold has done a dour indie drama (Heavy), a convoluted cop drama (Cop Land), a sensitive female ensemble piece (Girl, Interrupted), and a cross-century romance (Kate & Leopold). Now this. If we try hard enough to find a thematic link in Mangold’s work, it would appear to be the onion-like layers of delusion and deception hiding our true selves from other people and from ourselves. Identity, I guess, fits into that, but it’s a pretty crude and obvious reiteration of his theme. If you want to get to the bottom of your characters’ identities, it helps if they have identities first.

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