Originally written in May 2003.
The “twist movie” is always risky. The director and screenwriter must sprinkle it with clues or the twist will come out of nowhere, causing more confusion than surprise (Basic). That's no good.
There should be clues, but they must be subtle enough to elude the audience the first time around. If they are too overt, you and I will put it together and beat the movie to its big reveal (The Life of David Gale). That's no good either.
Ideally, the movie will draw viewers in, make them feel comfortable and appear to be heading in some definite direction. But then it goes somewhere completely different and provides that rare moment of clarity where everything leading up to it comes together in a logical, though unanticipated, conclusion (The Sixth Sense).
It's tricky terrain to navigate, but Identity succeeds, beginning as a conventional, yet well-made homage to Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians before venturing off into a wholly unexpected and more satisfying territory.
With lightning flashing, thunder crashing and a torrential downpour flooding out the roads, 11 strangers are stranded at a remote motel—the creepiest such location since Psycho. There's Ed (John Cusack), a chauffeur driving a has-been actress (Rebecca De Mornay); Rhodes (Ray Liotta), a cop transporting a convicted killer (Jake Busey); Paris (Amanda Peet), a prostitute fleeing Las Vegas for the orange groves of Florida; newlyweds Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott); George (John C. McGinley) with his wife, Alice (Leila Kenzle), who lies close to death after being hit by the limo, and stepson Timothy (Bret Loehr); and Larry (John Hawkes), the jittery motel clerk.
Before long, the killer escapes and the motel guests begin to die one by one.
Concurrently, a judge is awakened to hear new evidence in the case of a man (Pruitt Taylor Vince) scheduled to be executed the next day for a series of brutal murders four years earlier. A psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) comes to his defense.
It's not clear how the two storylines will intersect, but when they do, it's a doozy.
Along the way, you may notice holes and things that seem unbelievable. They're all part of the design of director James Mangold and screenwriter Michael Cooney (writer-director of the B-movie Jack Frost and its sequel, Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman). Stick with it and you'll understand.
Cooney's smart script comes to life through a superb cast ably led by Cusack. His confident chauffeur claims to be a former cop and quickly takes charge. Though a bit underused, Liotta's cop is clearly hiding something—why else would he defer leadership on the scene of multiple homicides to a limo driver?—and Busey projects a quiet menace with just a few crazed looks. Peet brings a weariness to her Vegas call girl, suggesting that she has already seen so much hardship in her life that she's not even rattled by a murder or two. Most of the comic moments are reserved for Hawkes, who infects Larry with a nervous weirdness that even Norman Bates might find creepy.
Mangold's past work has been largely character driven, and though much of Identity depends on slasher movie conventions, he doesn't forget about the people involved. Every character has a story, but I can't go into any detail without spoiling some of the plot developments.
While many other good movies are ruined—and a few bad ones are somewhat redeemed—by their surprise endings, Identity is a rarity: a good movie made better by a twist you won't see coming.
(Rated R for strong violence and language. 90 minutes.)