There is some sly humour to the telling of the twisty-turny plot of Identity that The Master – Alfred Hitchcock – may well have approved of.
Throw in some genuinely unsettling moments, a succession of nasty murders, a single location (a Hitchcock favourite)and a collection of soon-to-be-dead victims or suspects and it soon becomes apparent that this is way above being merely formulaic.
In the hands of James Mangold, the man behind the superior thriller Copland, Identity draws together a disparate group of strangers and leaves them stranded at a remote roadside motel during a great storm.
There is an egotistical actress and her limo driver (Rebecca de Mornay and John Cusack), a cop and his manacled prisoner (Ray Liotta and Jake Busey), a young couple, a father, his son and his wife, bleeding heavily following a road accident, a hooker and the motel manager.
All of them are thrown together in the way Hitchcock used to do it in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Then, something starts to kill them off using the thunder, lightning and deafening rain as cover. With the ‘phone lines down and no luck with the detective’s car radio, all they can do is hope they survive until daybreak…
Audiences will love the Cluedo-esque manner in which Mangold scatters his picture with hints at the killer’s identity. One by one he whittles down his cast until a hardcore of familiar figures remain. The lion’s share of the acting honours are evenly spread between Cusack’s Sherlocky former cop-turned-chauffeur, Liotta’s nervy detective and Amanda Peet’s sleazy hooker.
The humour, dark as it is, lightens the oppressive mood by lifting the film immediately after a murder has taken place. One great line comes courtesy of a gruesome patch-up job on a road accident victim with a gaping wound in her neck. As Cusack pulls the skin together with a needle and black thread, the twitchy motel manager says “I wish I had beige”.
Mangold, directing from a script by Michael (Jack Frost) Cooney, exercises great discipline over his ensemble cast and they in turn enjoy the mad scramble from room to room, through the ever-pouring rain, as the unseen killer strikes again and again.
Like Hitchcock before him, Mangold builds tension and pressure by allowing his killer to strike during a lull in the action and through ensuring his cast obeys that old standard: not doing as they’re told.
Hence when two or three deaths have occurred and both paranoia and distrust have set in, people still go blundering off into the night alone. It’s something Hitchcock patented and people like John Carpenter gleefully copied in the likes of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and The Thing. Now Mangold is doing it within a film that tips its hat to Hitchcock with every bloody death.
Sections of the movie reminded this reviewer of a 1970s TV movie entitled Sole Survivor, in which a US bomber crew is stranded in the Libyan desert. That was haunting while Identity is a superior chiller, but the comparison is valid despite the variety of stabbings, decapitations, chokings, shootings and explosions that punctuate Identity.
With cuts between the hotel of horror and a hastily convened meeting to decide the fate of a mass killer facing execution, smarter movie buffs will guess the killer’s identity way before the grisly denouement. Still, Mangold keeps the pot boiling until the very last frame.
I wonder if you’ll get it in time…?
Star rating: ***