Previous Entry: Rear Window
Connection: genre (thriller)
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Michael Cooney
Starring John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, Clea Duvall, John C. McGinley, William Lee Scott, Jake Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Rebecca De Mornay
90 minutes, Rated R
In this entry, I am going to do something that I have never done in an entry before: provide a spoiler warning. I don’t usually provide one. I haven’t worried too much about it up to this point. The films that I’ve discussed have all been several years old. You’ve either seen them or you haven’t. And it seems unlikely that I have readers rushing to Family Video to rent a movie because I talked about it here.
With that said, this week’s film relies heavily on a clever twist. If you haven’t seen this film, you should know that I am recommending it to fans of the genre very highly. But I do think that your first viewing loses something if you know ahead of time where it’s all heading. So . . . spoiler warning it is.
THIS DISCUSSION OF IDENTITY CONTAINS SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS FILM, PLEASE COME BACK AFTER YOU DO.
Okay. What is Identity?
Released in 2003, Identity is a very clever thriller that borrows heavily from the tropes of horror and flasher films. Or is it a horror/slasher film that borrows heavily from the tropes of psychological thrillers? The film isn’t particularly scary (until the few moments when it is). But it’s loaded with enough gore and jump scares that just calling it a “thriller” is misleading and perhaps unfair to the deft homage to slasher films that the filmmakers have crafted. For our purposes, we will try to discuss this movie without pigeonholing it into either genre. We’ll consider it without genre, a film with no . . . um . . . identity. Which is appropriate once we have discovered exactly what is going on therein.
By plot description alone, the film seems simple enough. There’s a torrential thunderstorm that has flooded all of the roads. There’s a run-down rural motel. There are ten people (depicted in various horror film archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes) who wind up stranded. As the night progresses, these characters find themselves being murdered off one by one. But what of the B-plot, which depicts a last-minute psychology session for a convicted murderer less than 24 hours away from execution? What does this story have to do with the other?
Let’s back up . . . discussion of how they connect requires a breakdown of the individual characters. At first, they seem one-dimensional. Likable, but under-developed. There’s a bitchy actress (played by Rebecca De Mornay). Her limo driver (played by John Cusack) is a former police officer, who has accidentally run over a woman (played by Leila Kenzle) standing in the road. She is in the road because she is holding an umbrella for her neurotic husband (played by John C. McGinley) as he changes a tire. They all end up at the aforementioned motel, a shady establishment run by an even-shadier desk clerk (played by John Hawkes) who seems suspicious from the moment we first meet him. Also at the motel on this particular evening is a prostitute (played by Amanda Peet) and a young couple who have been married for less than twelve hours (played by Clea Duvall and William Lee Scott). We meet a police officer (played by Ray Liotta) charged with the transport of a violent murderer (played by Jake Busey) to another prison. The tenth, and final, motel guest is Timmy (played by Bret Loehr), the selectively-mute stepson of the neurotic husband. I would tell you the names of the other characters, but that would be spoiling things way too quickly.
Like I said, regardless of name, all of these characters are, on the surface, one-dimensional. Back stories are revealed slowly, if at all (for example, what exactly does John C. McGinley’s character even do for a living?). Once they are revealed, they seem to be done in a very cliched fashion, in the service of plot progression and nothing more. One of the backstories, in particular, that of the shady manager, is borderline ridiculous, the sort of backstory that only happens in slasher films that we’re not meant to take very seriously anyway. It almost seems to be present merely for comic effect, another symptom of a movie trying desperately to defy genre.
Eventually, though, the characters being underdeveloped becomes clearly intentional. They are deliberately stereotypes. Obviously intended to be reminiscent of a million other characters in a million other films. More specifically, a million other slasher and psychological thriller narratives. It starts with the realization that all ten characters share the same birthday. It continues with the realization that all ten characters are named after states in the Union (except for Amanda Peet, who is named Paris). And then the movie becomes a whole other film.
Remember the B-plot I mentioned earlier? It concerns a psychiatrist (played by Alfred Molina) trying to convince a federal judge (played by Holmes Osborne) to overturn a death-penalty ruling for his client, Malcolm Rivers (played by Pruitt Taylor Vince), a sadistic psychopath who murdered six people in cold blood. New evidence has come to light that suggests Malcolm Rivers might have multiple personalities. With mere hours left before the execution, the good psychiatrist is forcing Rivers to undergo an experimental treatment that will require his various personalities to fight each other and kill each other off until there is only one personality left standing.
I know that doesn’t make any sense. But as filmgoers, haven’t we been trained over time to accept the implausibility of various horror film plot elements? What makes this clearly ludicrous revelation any different than, say, a decapitated Jason Voorhees rising from Crystal Lake at the last second for the 800th time?
Identity is a very, very clever movie in this regard. The characters are one-dimensional because they don’t exist. The characters are stereotypes because Malcolm Rivers uses the limited knowledge that he has about people and how they tick to create them. They have the same birthdate, generic names, and die in horror and thriller cliches because Malcolm Rivers is imaginative . . . but he isn’t a writer.
I love a movie with a good unexpected plot twist, but a lot of these movies don’t work as well on repeat viewings. Once you know the twist, the film loses a good amount of its suspense. The best movies with great twists (I’m thinking of films like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club) work on repeat viewings because the films are actually about something that transcends the plot twist. A lot of twist-oriented narratives lose something on repeat viewings because getting to the twist is really all the film was ever about (here, I’m thinking of The Usual Suspects). Identity works on repeat viewings because of the mixture of genre. Once a viewer knows the psychological thriller aspect of the movie, it still works as a clever slasher film. Without the plot twist, you still have a damn fine horror film. At the very least, you have a horror film that is no more ridiculous than any other slasher film that gets watched repeatedly.
I will admit that the movie is possibly “too clever” for its own good. If you work backwards from the plot revelation, you can see that everything in the film to that point checks out, so the writer hasn’t cheated in any way. But he doesn’t shy away from a whole slew of red herrings to lead viewers down the wrong path. For example, when it is mentioned in the beginning of the film that the prisoner is being transported from prison for his midnight psychiatry session, we automatically assume that Jake Busey is the prisoner being transported. When he escapes custody, the film wants us to believe that he is the mysterious killer. When he winds up dead, and only one of the other characters could have possibly been the culprit, the script force feeds us a clunky backstory to make us believe that this guy must be the mysterious killer. Switcheroos like this are commonplace throughout. The absolute final scenes of the film rely heavily on this as well. I’m actually NOT going to spoil that, but suffice it to say that the personality left standing in the end is one that we were led to believe had been already annihilated.
Identity is, by no means, a perfect film. The plotting gets a little clunky once the big twist is revealed. Some of the acting is overdone and melodramatic. But are we accepting this film as an homage of sorts to another genre or not? If we are, we have to accept those flaws. The genre being imitated is well-known for clunky plotting and terrible acting after all. At least in the case of Identity, these flaws might be intentional.