Just when it seemed about to crash, the trend of big movie twists pulls out of its tailspin with Identity, a film whose change-ups might be seen coming but is certainly no worse off for it.
Rather than crumpling up the logic in File 13, screenwriter Michael Cooney jukes in ways wholly integral to the story. And even if you do peg the twists, it feels like a reward for paying attention — something most filmmakers think audiences can’t do anymore while watching a thriller.
It’s hard, then, to knock Cooney and director James Mangold for hanging their innovative zigzag around an old, Agatha Christie-style idea. Strangers forced off the road by flooding are trapped at a dingy motel, being murdered one by one at the hands of a killer who leaves increasingly enigmatic clues. Through flashbacks, we’re introduced to the key players.
There’s Ed (John Cusack), a cop turned limo driver who’s chauffeuring has-been actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay). Paris (Amanda Peet) is a former prostitute looking to leave it all behind in her native state of Florida. An accident sends the already nebbish family man George York (John C. McGinley) into panicked overdrive. And a smarmy cop named Rhodes (Ray Liotta) must stop at the motel even though he’s transporting a violent murderer (Jake Busey).
Identity begins a bit slowly, but its heavy atmosphere and revealing dialogue give it sort of a languid, otherworldly feel.
The rainiest movie in recent memory, Identity has been given a tripped-out look by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Everything feels just a little bit off, and it’s appropriate given the twists and even character inconsistencies, which make sense in retrospect.
Through those characters, who talk with some meaning about what’s important to them, the film has an uncommonly human side. In particular, McGinley has some fine understated moments. And Cusack is in top form, doing his angry cynicism bit with no jokey, romantic-comedy undertones.
Nevertheless, even the most endearing characters are fair game when it comes to getting offed. And while the film has some gory moments, namely the grisly use of a baseball bat, it generates more intensity from the rainstorm outside than blood and guts.
At times, Identity threatens to lean in truly tired directions, even bringing Poltergeist to mind by mentioning an Indian burial ground. But it still keeps us interested, leading to its biggest twist, which introduces a whole new set of engrossing mysteries to solve. The only letdown is the ultimate reveal, which is fine in the narrative sense, but has been filmed in a too over-the-top way.
Like magicians who hate using the words “magic tricks” to describe what they do, Cooney and Mangold probably prefer “sleight of hand.” With its airtight structure, tension and impressive performances, Identity is not only the most intelligent thriller of the year so far, it’s also the best.