Wednesday, November 2, 2011

John Cusack focus concludes with Review of Identity

It can be a really effective premise to confine your characters to a single location fort eh duration of the drama. The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of this as a narrative device. It can work best in a thriller and there are many that throw a bunch of people together for a single night and then dispatch them one by one.

James Mangold’s Identity starts eerily and mysteriously with newspaper clippings of a motel murder and voiceover recordings of a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) talking to the alleged perpetrator. Then suddenly we’re thrust into a motel office as a man bursts in holding his bleeding wife shouting at the clerk to call an ambulance. Then in overlapping flashbacks we see the sequence of events, involving a young call girl, a limousine driver and an aging movie star, and a young boy who never speaks, that led to the accident. Because of a terrible rain storm that has washed out the road in both directions, all these characters and more wind up at the motel together.

Right away the screenplay by Michael Cooney is deliberately disorienting – are we seeing the motel murders featured in those clips from the opening credits? But we’ve also seen a late-night hearing with a judge to decide the fate of a man on death row who may have mental health issues that preclude him from receiving the death penalty. So when a corrections officer named Rhodes (Ray Liotta) turns up with a prisoner in transit (Jake Busey) maybe we’re in the present and history will repeat itself.

That Identity bears some resemblance to Psycho I’m sure is no accident. Both use a secluded desert motel as the scene of nightmares and both involve characters with some kind of identity crisis. And remember that Marion Crane pulled into the Bates Motel because of torrential rain.

The characters who wind up stranded at the motel are a hodgepodge of misfits and distinct personalities. Apart from the obsessive-compulsive George (John C. McGinley), his injured wife and the shy little boy are John Cusack as Ed, the limo driver, and Rebecca De Mornay as his charge. She is vain and selfish while he is quietly reflective, calm and reasonable. He also knows far more about police procedures than any limo driver should know. Amanda Peet plays the screenplay’s necessarily sympathetic female lead, Paris, the hooker with a heart of gold who just want to get to Florida and tend to an orange grove. Her character is also the target of the most derision for her profession, particularly from the hotel clerk (John Hawkes) and Lou (William Lee Scott) and his new bride Ginny (Clea DuVall).

You know it won’t be long before someone in this lineup is killed. Then it’s a matter of tracking the culprit (is it Rhodes’ convict?) and staying alive until the storm passes. Oh, and each new body comes with a motel room key starting with 10, then 9… The whole thing is like a little boy’s recollection of mysteries and thrillers, from the Psycho parallels to the Agatha Christie countdown. Perhaps there’s some secret to be unlocked in that.

Identity is not a film that treats mental disorders with a whole lot of subtlety. Instead they’re a means to an end, a kind of tie that binds the whole story together. But if you’re going into this looking for a fair representation of clinical disorders, you’re starting from way behind. This is a haunting thriller, effective in its use of creepy locations that nobody can run from – one character tries, but finds himself circling back to where he started from – and an excellent combination of light, shadow and sound design to establish an uneasy mood. The whole movie rides on a tight rope of tension.

Usually in a movie like this the casting is an afterthought, the stock roles filled out with a few stars and a couple of newcomers. In this case it may seem that way on the surface, but upon deeper reflection there’s a reason why Cusack’s part recalls several of his earlier roles in terms of Ed’s mild-mannered nature. De Mornay, a fading star, was chosen with intention to play the character of a washed-up actress. Busey, a terrible actor with a gift for producing the same idiotic facial expression in every role, is cast to recall his maniacal performances in Contact and The Frighteners. Liotta’s performance borders on unhinged, like his most well-known role as Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Hawkes, a great character actor without traditional movie star looks, is gaunt, wiry and nervous – qualities that help cast suspicion on his character. There’s a reason there’s such a strong connection between the histories of these actors, their physical appearances, and the characters they portray in this film.

Ultimately, the film’s big reveal is a bit facile and the gotcha moment is, even if you don’t piece it together early, a bit obvious in retrospect. Identity works well enough because Mangold is a capable director who can take a premise this silly and mold it into something interesting. Like John Dahl, he’s someone whose films I will always take more interest in even if the subject matter is tired and dull simply because I know he’s going to take it and do something more with it than the average studio hack.

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