[Screen It]

(2003) (John Cusack, Ray Liotta) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A disparate group of strangers tries to figure out who or what is killing them, one by one, in the remote motel where they're stranded.
It's the night before convicted mass murderer Malcolm Rivers (PRUITT TAYLOR VINCE) is scheduled to be executed. In a rare move, his lawyer and psychiatrist (ALFRED MOLINA) have convinced a judge to allow them and their client to meet him to discuss whether Rivers is mentally fit to die for his crimes.

At the same time on that dark and rainy night, George (JOHN C. McGINLEY), his wife Alice (LELIA KENZLE) and her son Timmy (BRET LOEHR) have just had a blowout while driving down a remote road. While changing it, limo driver Ed (JOHN CUSACK), who's transporting faded TV actress Caroline Suzanne (REBECCA DeMORNAY), accidentally runs over Alice.

Desperate for help and with no cell phone coverage, they end up at a remote motel where they meet the clerk, Larry (JOHN HAWKES). His phone also isn't working due to former call girl Paris (AMANDA PEET) accidentally hitting a utility pole upon discovering that the local roads are flooded.

Also finding themselves stranded at the motel are newlyweds Ginny (CLEA DuVALL) and Lou (WILLIAM LEE SCOTT), as well as a cop, Rhodes (RAY LIOTTA), who's transporting another mass murderer, Robert Maine (JAKE BUSEY).

With Ed trying to get some sort of help for the badly injured Alice, the rest prepare to settle in for the night. Yet, things aren't particularly cozy, and when various people start dying from grisly murders in reverse order of the room key numbers, the dwindling survivors try to figure out who or what's responsible and how to avoid being the next victim.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
A man is heard repeating what sounds like a childhood nursery rhyme that's far more intriguing and even sinister than its tempo implies. In it, he comments on going up some stairs, to see a man who really wasn't there. He then adds, "He wasn't there again today...I wish, I wish he'd go away."

That's heard several times in "Identity," the latest psychological suspense thriller to contain a whopper of a surprise revelation. While it will blindside some viewers, it isn't quite of the knock-your-socks-off variety as was the case with "The Sixth Sense."

From a review standpoint, such films are often hard to critique since everything leads to and is designed to pay off with the twist at the end, thus making it difficult to discuss without giving any of it away. That's certainly the case here, and I won't ruin the surprise, except to say that it doesn't occur at the end, but rather at the beginning of the third act.

That said, the film and its various clues aren't quite as intricately woven as in M. Night Shyamalan's film, nor is the revelation as much "fun." That said, I appreciate the concept and effort, and I like it better now in hindsight than when it actually occurred.

My degree of disappointment with it is due to the fact that what leads up to it is a terrific bit of one-set thrills and chills. As directed by James Mangold ("Kate & Leopold," "Girl, Interrupted"), who works from an original script by Michael Cooney (the "Jack Frost" films), the film mostly takes place in one of those old, rundown and remote motels that are scattered across the Southwest like so many tumbleweeds.

With the disparate group of strangers assembled there, the stage is set for an Agatha Christie type of murder mystery, as various "guests" are bumped off one by one. Despite some occasional comic relief, however, this one's not quaint or charming.

Instead, it's dark and foreboding, and even occasionally approaches the grisliness of "Final Destination 2," what with the sudden "splat" moments. While that one had supernatural underpinnings, this one's far more successful at getting under one's skin with a case of the heebie-jeebies.

Various possible red herrings and/or truthful explanations - including the presence of two mass murderers and the always-reliable Indian burial ground - are present, and the filmmakers make good use of them in keeping viewers guessing about who or what might be responsible for the murders.

If you pay close attention to the clues, you might figure out the culprit and/or explanation. Even so, I for one was a bit disappointed with that due to the fact that everything up to that point was brilliant, including some early, nonlinear storytelling where the tale rewinds to show what led up to various moments.

While not a disastrous turn of events, it's another case of filmmakers painting a terrific story, but then realizing that they've painted themselves into a corner with no good way out. The film does continue for a bit after the revelation and somewhat redeems itself, but it doesn't quite match up to what preceded it.

Beyond the efforts behind the camera - including some topnotch technical work - what really makes the film so engaging are the performances from the terrific cast. As is the case with any Christie whodunit, this one's filled with an eclectic array of characters, and the performers inhabiting them do a good job in their respective parts.

The key role goes to John Cusack ("Serendipity," "High Fidelity") and he's just as good as ever. I don't know what it is about the actor, but he always brings or injects a great deal of gravity and depth to his characters and that's certainly the case here. The highlights are when he's working with or against the character played by the seemingly always ready to explode Ray Liotta ("Narc, "Goodfellas"). Their scenes together are pure dynamite and both help move the picture up a notch or two.

Amanda Peet ("Igby Goes Down," "Changing Lanes") is good playing a call girl who's wanting to go straight but must put up with the malicious remarks from a motel clerk played by John Hawkes ("Hardball," "The Perfect Storm"). Alfred Molina ("Frida," "Chocolat") and Pruitt Taylor Vince ("Trapped," Simone") play a psychiatrist and his patient in a subplot that eventually connects back in with the main story thrust.

Meanwhile, the likes of Clea DuVall ("Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," "Girl, Interrupted"), John C. McGinley ("Get Carter," "Platoon"), William Lee Scott ("Pearl Harbor," "Gone in 60 Seconds"), Jake Busey ("Starship Troopers," "Contact"), Rebecca DeMornay ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "Risky Business") and others all fit the bill, particularly when viewed in context of the big revelation.

Appropriately and effectively creepy, the film had me going for a long time, trying to figure out what the explanation and/or surprise was going to be. While I didn't initially see it coming, when it finally arrived, it didn't blow me away as much as I would have liked, but in hindsight, I appreciate it and the rest of the film. Not a classic, but unnerving and "fun" enough for what it's trying to do and be, "Identity" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed April 17, 2003 / Posted April 25, 2003

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