This film, directed by James Mangold, is one that I was very impressed with in its original theatrical release, and revisiting it now, it still holds up as an effective thriller. Supported by a remarkable ensemble cast and a brilliant screenplay, Identity delivers a mind-bending story that cleverly weaves its way around a classic murder mystery premise.
Strangers from all different walks of life are all trapped by a torrential rain storm on a Nevada road one night. They are forced to take shelter at an old roadside motel, run by the nervous manager Larry (John Hawkes). There is Ed Dakota, a limo driver, escorting fading television star Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay), the turbulent married couple of George & Alice York (John C. McGinley & Leila Kinzel) with their young son Timothy (Bret Loehr), Rhodes, a Department of Corrections officer transporting the dangerous convict Robert Maine (Jake Busey), a beautiful call girl (Amanda Peet), and a couple of young newlyweds (William Lee Scott & Clea DuVall). None of them are at ease amongst these strangers, but circumstances become dire when someone begins murdering them one-by-one. Accusations begin to fly as paranoia and fear escalate, but they will all begin to discover very strange truths about their supposed chance encounter here. Meanwhile in an undisclosed location, in an eleventh hour court hearing, psychiatrist Dr. Mallick (Alfred Molina) tries to prove the innocence and sanity of his patient, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has been convicted of murder, and is scheduled to face execution in twenty-four hours. How both of these stories connect is a mystery of identity.
This film will keep you guessing from one moment to the next as to many things. Many twists unfold in plot and perception, and when you think this film has twisted your thoughts into many knots, it throws one final one at you. Now, these twists won’t leave you lost, there’s plenty of breathing room and enough exposition to allow you to understand all that is happening. It is very cleverly paced and structured to keep an audience ensnared through the entire mystery. This film is tense, suspenseful, creepy, and haunting. It is an excellent psychological thriller that has far more to it than just a group of people getting killed off in a very Agatha Christie fashion. In fact, no other film I have seen has utilized this genre quite so well. There is just as much psychological terror for the characters as there is for the audience.
Director James Mangold brilliantly builds suspense and paranoia with a troubling sense of unease. A group of strangers stranded in a run down desert motel definitely lends to that feeling. Considering one of them is a known violent criminal heightens that even more. Subtle things are revealed to the audience that add to our apprehension knowing certain people are not who they claim or appear to be. This creates plenty of clever misdirection. Add in some volatile and emotionally distressed characters, and the tension is wrapped so a tight, unnerving level. When that tension finally breaks, it’s heart pounding. The film hardly never allows an audience to relax fully. There’s regularly some form of urgency or excitement that propels the characters forward towards danger.
The style of the film is very original such as with the immediate flashbacks. You’ll see a lot of them at the start and a bit near the end. They show how certain events brought everyone together in a unique non-linear fashion. It nicely punctuates certain plot elements such as it was Paris’ high-heeled shoe that flew out of her opened suitcase that caused the York’s flat tire later that night. It’s a nice, quick storytelling tool that helps move the story ahead quickly without leaving even small questions unanswered. I enjoyed that element quite a bit, and the direction and editing of them was very handled well. The addition of the rain storm throughout the film is classically atmospheric, and adds to the treacherous, mysterious qualities of the plot. Danger and paranoia are abound as things get stranger and stranger, and the torrential rain and thunder claps simply unsettle the characters and the audience further.
The surreal aspects are also subtly handled. They forge an underlying peculiarity for the strangers at the motel. They attempt to explain them in various ways, but eventually, these occurrences go far beyond mere coincidence or rationale. They can’t make sense of it, but it truly freaks them out. It creates a bizarre, twisted web for them all. These aspects build up so beautifully to an absolutely mind-blowing revelation.
Identity is masterfully shot and edited. Shooting in all that nighttime rain never muddles the visuals. We always have a clear picture of what’s happening without sacrificing the dramatic, moody cinematography. The film evenly balances between various indoor and outdoor scenes giving an audience enough variety in the visuals to keep our eyes interested. There is such great atmosphere crafted into how the film is shot, and the editing really supports the lingering suspense expertly. When things begin deconstructing in the third act, the editing creates an amazing visual style which perfectly represents the psychological chaos. It’s all a superbly executed thriller with many gripping twists and turns that have an excellent conclusion.
This ensemble cast is magnificent! There strong performances all around with John Cusack being the obvious trusting protagonist. He brings his usual heart and wit along with a solid dramatic weight. Ed Dakota is a very relatable character with a great depth of pain and desire to do what is right. He’s given a strong back story that Cusack really grasps the emotional weight and guilt Ed carries with him, making him someone we can invest our confidence in.
Ray Liotta has a nice turn showing both a hardened strength and a shadier side that surfaces later on. He is very intense, confrontational, and adversarial while projecting a presence of authority with a more temperamental edge. Jake Busey is convincingly intimidating and dangerous with a crazed look in his eye coupled with his reliable charisma. John Hawkes is another stellar actor who can deliver a deep array of emotions. Here, he runs the full gamut ranging from nervous and skittish to violent and unhinged. And I really have to say that Rebecca De Mornay is hotter here than I have ever seen her before. She’s beyond gorgeous in my view, as I have an affinity for red heads, and she does a wonderful job as the somewhat egotistical actress Caroline Suzanne. She’s definitely a pleasure. And of course, I always expect nothing less than excellence from John C. McGinley, as many do these days, and he doesn’t fail here. His George York is a very nervous man with little self-confidence who doesn’t cope with these violent, tragic situations well. McGinley brings a lot of compassion and simple innocence to this caring husband and step-father.
Alfred Molina is perfect as Dr. Mallick presenting a soft-spoken, intelligent psychiatrist with a sense of empathy. Pruitt Taylor Vince has always impressed me taking on some substantive and sometimes peculiar roles, and doing an exceptionally unique and standout job in them. For what little time he has on screen, he brings that same level of talent to Malcolm Rivers. That jittery eye trick he does seems to land him these off-kilter roles, and it is distinctly effective.
I really have to hand it to the screenwriting talents of Michael Clooney, and especially the directorial abilities of James Mangold. Both crafted together a very solid, smart, and effective thriller that has plenty of genuine scares and suspense to entertain an audience. Because of this, it still has re-watch value. The film is so strong that it would still work just as marvelously without the major twist at the end. The mystery thriller aspect with people being killed off at the motel is just expertly executed in every way. The addition of said twist just ups the psychological brilliance of the concept. I definitely give Identity a wholehearted recommendation, just as I did when it was theatrically released.