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Identity (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 7, 2023



Starring John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall, John C. McGinley, William Lee Scott, Jake Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rebecca DeMornay, Leila Kenzle, Terence Bernie Hines, Bret Loehr and Matt Letscher.

Screenplay by Michael Cooney.

Directed by James Mangold.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures.  97 minutes.  Rated R.

Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None (also known as The Ten Little Indians) is one of the scariest mystery novels ever. Ten seemingly random and very different people are drawn to a secluded island where they are cut off from contact with the outside world. Soon, they are being systematically and violently killed by an unknown assailant that may or may not be one of them.

This storyline has caught the fancy of many filmmakers over the years. The novel has been filmed five times. It has also inspired a slew of imitators… one could reasonably argue that the book set the template for the entire slasher film subgenre. But unlike the Friday the 13ths and the I Know What You Did Last Summers of the world, Christie’s novel had a subtle humor and series of truly surprising twists and turns and realized that the violence was secondary to the sense of dread and suspense of the story.

James Mangold’s Identity is one of the better films in recent years to tap into the And Then There Were None plotline. (Identity is blatant in its homage, even to the point of having one of the characters cite the Christie storyline when the group is trying to figure out what is happening.) This film relies on its sense of surprise, so I will do my best to not give away too much and ruin it.

Ten travelers end up in a rain-drenched Nevada motel. The roads are flooded, and the phone lines are down, naturally. There is the former cop-turned chauffeur (John Cusack) transporting a vain film starlet (Rebecca DeMornay). After an automobile accident a nerdy middle-aged husband (John C. McGinley) is trying to save the life of his injured wife (Leila Kenzle) while taking care of her son from a previous marriage. 

A prostitute (Amanda Peet) who is moving home to start over is stranded when her car dies in the rain. A young couple… not even a day past a Vegas wedding and already arguing constantly… is also pulled into the vortex. Throw in a peculiar hotel manager and a strangely ineffectual cop (Ray Liotta) who is transporting a violent killer (Jake Busey.) All they have in common is that they all have the same birthday.

What follows is a series of coincidences, plot-twists, clues, red herrings, spectacular deaths and recriminations amongst the survivors. Most of it makes no sense on the surface and yet is spectacularly spooky. 

There is also another storyline going on about a deranged serial killer (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who is having a hearing to stay his execution. Who is killing everyone? Why does everyone involved seem to have hidden motives and not be who they seem? What do the goings on at the hotel have to do with the scenes at the courthouse?

The audience is finally let in on what is happening about fifteen minutes before the film’s end. While it is certainly an original and unexpected plot idea, I don’t think it will be a satisfying one for most viewers. 

That disappointment saps the final twist of most of its power, as does the fact that the last surprise relies on… again, trying not to give too much away… a psychologist making an assumption that it seems he probably wouldn’t make. But even if the ending is something of a cheat, everything that leads up to it is so stylishly done and skillfully acted that Identity still warrants seeing.  (4/03)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved. Posted: April 28, 2003.

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