Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Know Thyself

Films: Identity
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on basement television.

I love it when a movie has a cast list that it absolutely doesn’t deserve. Cats is a fabulous example of this—Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba—and it’s evidently a massive train wreck. Identity is not a train wreck. It’s an entertaining little thriller, but again, it has a cast list that it absolutely can’t support. Appearing at various points are John Cusack, Ray Liotta, John C. McGinely, Clea DuVall, Alfred Molina, John Hawkes, Rebecca De Mornay, Jake Busey, and the backwards-named Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and Amanda Peet, for whatever that’s worth.

What we’re going to get here is a dual narrative. The minor story concerns a vicious killer named Malcolm Rivers (Vince) who is a day away from execution. His psychiatrist, Dr. Malick (Molina) believes that he has evidence to stay the execution, possibly permanently. The main story concerns a motel in the middle of nowhere where a number of people arrive in the middle of a terrible rainstorm, become stranded, and are slowly picked off by a killer among them. Our motel people are Ed (Cusack), a limo driver working for Caroline Suzanne (De Mornay), a faded actress. George (McGinley) is there with his wife Alice (Leila Kenzle) and their son Timmy (Bret Loehr), desperate because Alice was hit by Ed’s car. We’ve also got newlywed couple Lou (William Lee Scott) and Ginny (DuVall), and working girl Paris (Peet). Rounding out our motel crew is cop Sam Rhodes (Liotta), transporting prisoner Robert Maine (Busey). All of this is overseen by Larry (Hawkes), the motel manager. Many of these characters have some very dark secrets, and just about everyone is a suspect in what is going on.

Of course the two stories are going to merge at some point. That’s just the way movies work, so the question for much of the running time is exactly how the two stories are going to fit together. But it’s the motel story that is the most interesting part of the film, and thankfully that is where we are going to spend a great deal of our time. The killings start right away, too. We get to the motel with George desperate to get some assistance in for his wife and discovering that all of the roads are washed out. Once everyone has shown up, it becomes a game of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as people are killed off one at a time. Just to add to the creepy vibe, each person who dies is graced with a motel room key counting down from 10. Worse, even the deaths that appear completely accidental come with room keys as well, meaning that they are clearly no accident.

The best part of Identity is also the part where it has the most difficulty. This is a hard story to tell. It’s incredibly ambitious in the sense that it wants to tell two apparently disparate stories and wants desperately to blend them together. It’s mainly successful in this, but my guess is that a lot of the potential audience for this will figure out exactly what is going on long before we get there. It does all it can to hide what is really going on, but there are a few massive clues that reveal much of it. That said, the actual reveal is pretty great.

One of the problems with a movie like Identity is that cast. There are a lot of really good actors here, and that means that we’re not going to get a lot from each of them. It could be argued pretty convincingly that Cusack, Liotta, and Peet are playing the three main characters. This means that veterans like McGinley and most especially De Mornay are given a lot less screen time. In the case of De Mornay, it’s her demise that lets us know something terrible is going on at this motel, which means she’s not on screen for nearly long enough. That is the nature of this sort of film, though. Once we’re given the premise, the cast is going to be quickly whittled down.

I can’t really say truthfully that Identity is a great film, because it’s not. It is, however, a very entertaining one and a well-made one. It’s a good, solid thriller screenplay, and a decent entry in an increasingly impressive filmography for James Mangold.

Why to watch Identity: It’s an original idea.
Why not to watch: Once you see where it’s going, it’s not nearly as much fun.


  1. It's been a long time since I've seen it but I don't remember much about it as I wonder what happened to John Cusack? He's been in some awful straight-to-VOD films that are unwatchable.

    1. I can't tell you what has happened to Cusack, but he's made some very interesting horror movies.