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Identity As Potpie
A review of Identity
by J. D. Rummel

(SPOILER ALERT! Persons that intend to see this film should NOT read this review before seeing the film)

Director: James Mangold

Stars: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall, Rebecca DeMornay, John C. McGinley, John Hawkes, William Lee Scott, Jake Busey

Rating: R

Release: 04-25-2003

Time: 90 minutes

Buy Movie at The trailer for Identity compelled me to experience it, like a cool ride at an amusement park seen from a distance. I was surprised and disappointed when Manly Man Matt got to the film first and gave it a negative review. Actually he gave it an F grade (and the Manly Men are routinely a pretty forgiving folk). When I saw Identity I thought, it's a B-. Because of that difference of opinion, I thought about this movie a lot more than many flicks I see. I don't know if Matt's reaction corrupted me or not, but below are some considerations.

This is not the worst movie ever made. I don't think it deserves Matt's F. But I think an argument can be made that the movie is a cheap trick. It invites us into a world where we think we know the rules, and turns the tables on us. When this reversal is done fairly, as in The Sixth Sense, we gasp and cheer at how we were hoodwinked. Identity wants to achieve that same sense of shock, but it misses the mark. I figured out (in part) what Identity was doing a little over halfway through (although my brighter-than-me wife had to clarify some points after we walked out into the sun).

The ostensible premise of Identity gathers a group of strangers at a Nevada motel in a downpour that maroons them. Roads are washed out, phone lines are down, and cell signals are lost. The characters are a familiar assortment. There is an ex-cop chauffeur (Jon Cusack) and his bitch celebrity charge (Rebecca De Mornay). Add to this pair the family in a mini-van with quiet, disturbed child on an outing, whore looking to start over (Amanda Peet), barely competent cop (Ray Liotta) transporting a killer, teen couple on the run, and oddball motel manager. People start to die and the audience is led around on a familiar sort of slasher flick trail. After a time, the plot changes from And then There Were None to something more suited to the Twilight Zone. The deaths are occurring in the exact room order starting with room ten and counting down. Moreover, it becomes clear that all the characters (some of whose identities change) share the same birthday. All of this is inter-cut with scenes from an eleventh hour hearing taking place to determine whether the death sentence of a convicted mass murderer can be stayed because he is insane. Psychiatrist Alfred Molina is fighting to keep mass murderer alive because he was an abused child with a severely splintered identity. If your spider sense is tingling, it should be.

We think we are watching multiple characters come together under possible but tragic circumstances but we are given clues at times that things are not as they seem. Identity rightly doesn't linger on those clues long enough for us to sort them, and it adds false leads to send us in the wrong directions. The film is well acted based on the ostensible premise, and establishes an appropriate dark and stormy night atmosphere. Like a proper amusement ride it does induce tension and fear in the right places. As the story begins its conclusion we are supposed to be surprised that the entire sequence we have been watching for the past eighty plus minutes is actually the result of therapy taking place in the mind of the mass murderer.

Don't get me wrong, the filmmakers have every right to do this and to tell the story as they see fit. My problem is I can't shake the imagined picture of the meeting where the movie is being pitched and how clever the final revelation is perceived to be by the creators. Hell, I love being fooled. I just think that a madman's mind would be more interesting and feel less contrived. It's easy to edit images to make us believe something (watch any episode of Survivor) this just feels like a trick is being played on me by someone who has the power to do it (I can trip someone walking down the street but that doesn't mean I'm clever or special if I do it).

Matt is right about the ending. It is the worst kind of malarkey. It cheats the Molina character by making him inexplicably stupid at the end because it wants to terrify the audience when there is no logical reason for us to quake based on the information given in the scene itself. Also, it hearkens back to the tired endings of so many films that suggest evil never ends and cannot be beaten. If I wanted to feel that way I'd watch the news. A more poignant conclusion might have been achieved by letting the madman live in the orange grove in his mind having calmed the evil or even building a fence to keep it at bay.

Years ago when I was a starving undergraduate I used to cook frozen potpies. We called them clouds because they looked good, but when you dug into them they weren't very substantial. They tasted okay, but they didn't satisfy. You expected more based on the smell and the picture on the box. Identity is like one of those potpies. I'm giving it a C+ because Matt made me think about it.