Identity (2003)

Note: Plot spoilers ahead.

“There’s another kind of filmmaking in which you do open the movie up, and it does have a kind of visual athleticism to it, it’s a muscular film, but it doesn’t necessarily cut from more than one place. And the idea of making a movie work… at the motel you’re looking at right now, and staying there, and investigating that space visually for the next 90 minutes was really intriguing to me.”

James Mangold describes Identity, written by Michael Cooney, as a puzzle, not only in the viewers’ experience, but in his own, as he pieced it together on set and in editing. (He also assumes that you know the film’s “trick” ending by the time you listen to his commentary, which this review also assume: spoilers ahead.) At the same time, the film is, at first glance, a pretty standard slasher flick — stranded during a storm at a motel in the middle of nowhere (built on a sacred Indian burial ground, the “Tribal Tombs”), a group of strangers reveal their neuroses and deceptions, as, one by one, they are hideously murdered.

To begin his commentary on Columbia’s DVD, Mangold sets up his challenges, then talks about identity and identification, as processes. “The movie plays with both time and memory,” he says, “And reality and dreamscapes and nightmares, and ideas about reality in really interesting ways… The movie is a collection of sinners.” The first character he discusses is the distraught, rain-drenched George (John C. McGinley), first appearing when he arrives at the motel door with his wife Alice’s (Leila Kenzle) limp body in his arms. He wails, “She won’t stop bleeding!” As the film cuts back to show how she got that way, Mangold describes what you’re looking at, namely, “a series of cuts almost like — I thought of them, and it very much plays to the end of the film — almost like thoughts in a mind, the way we’ll connect an object or a memory and then kind of zap around, if you will, in the kind of the teevo or fastforward of our own brains.”

As this scene (the film’s third, following a brief frame concerning a death row inmate, Malcolm [Pruitt Taylor Vince, star of Mangold’s excellent Heavy], whose doctor seeks to introduce his journals into a last-minute appeals process, and a seconds-long set-up at the motel) unfolds — the family on vacation, driving on a rainy night, son Timothy (Bret Loehr) in the backseat — the trajectory is uncertain. Their tire blows out, and as George stoops to fix it, Alice holds the umbrella over him, then peeks inside to the car to wave sweetly at Timothy. Whomp, she’s hit by a car. As Mangold observes here, he uses a “non-anticipatory camera,” that is, while she’s hit, she’s just “wiped right out of the frame,” looked at from her son’s point of view, inside the family’s car.

Immediately, you see the scene again, from the point of view of the driver who hits her, and so you meet the depressed ex-cop and current limo driver Ed, played by John Cusack, about whom Mangold (rightly) enthuses, “He brings a kind of real gravity and humanity, likeability and also humor, a kind of sparkle to this role. He can play an enigmatic person, a person in transition and confused where they’re going in their life, and at the same time, not turn them into a muddle of glowering looks and shadows; there’s tremendous heart to this man… From the moment he arrives in the story, it feels like the film has found its center.”

This center is never quite set, however, which makes everything else slightly freaky too; Identity is an investigation of what it means to be a self, to feel whole and delimited, defined by what you are and what you are not. Appropriately, it draws from movie genres — classic horror, slasher, noir — to conduct this investigation. “In a way it’s a kind of ’40s energy, a ’40s gangster energy,” notes Mangold, which has to do with the near Vegas setting, the dreary darkness and the pursuit of dreams that lead to tragedy. Mangold makes good on this idea, using, as he puts it, “very noir shots,” with selective, shallow focus and deep shadows, and also, “using the wide screen aggressively… to play a lot with putting characters at one end of the screen or the other, and making the eye work a little bit, making you do some of the editing with your own eye.”

This “editing” entails coming to understand the assembled strangers in relation to one another, in addition to yourself (how you gauge them). Alongside George’s family and Ed, the film introduces Ed’s client for the evening, an insufferable has-been movie star, Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca DeMornay); a cynical prostitute named Paris (Amanda Peet), who brings with her a brief backstory in a bed in Las Vegas; buggy motel clerk Larry (John Hawkes); a cop, Rhodes (Ray Liotta), transporting a doped-up psycho killer prisoner, Robert (Jake Busey); and a couple of already squabbling newlyweds, Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott).

The film also includes a second set, revealed only occasionally, that involves the last minute revisiting of Malcolm’s case. He is, as you eventually learn, the film’s actual “central consciousness,” as conscious as he can be, having segregated all his personalities so neatly and so rigidly. He is escorted to a conference room in the dead of stormy night to meet with a judge (Holmes Osborne); along with his doctor (Alfred Molina), and he pleads insanity, based on new evidence of a journal, where his multiple personalities become clear. (With respect to this plot, the DVD offers an “extended version” as well as the theatrical release, in which Mangold inserts previously cut scenes, but, as he says himself, the extra images of the conference room really aren’t necessary.)

Mangold commends the script’s ingenuity and fully developed characters within this single, “fragile” consciousness, recalling his research of serial killers; he tells one story about Kenneth Bianchi’s interviews, in which he revealed his own alter, Steve, who committed the grisly murders of which Ken had, apparently, no knowledge. Mangold sees his characters as existing only because they can maintain their boundaries, which collapse quickly, once Malcolm receives (“mythological”) clarity-inducing drug treatment. At this point, says Mangold, the characters at the motel — who are, in essence, Malcolm’s inner lives separated out — are caught up in “an exorcism of personality elimination, in which you force them all to confront one another.”

As Mangold puts it, the structure of the film comprises a kind of “plate-spinning,” not only in dialogue but also in shot blocking, that is, the multiple storylines have to intersect and diverge, all in motion at once. The director is specially fond of these visual set-ups: “There’s a lot of wonderful compositions we make using the doors and the windows, showing how the spaces connect to one another,” a function, Mangold notes, of the crew having constructed the motel, so the spaces exist three-dimensionally and elegantly, on a studio lot. The fluidity of space and time leads to confusion and instability. As James Mangold neatly puts it, these characters are running along “a kind of Möbius strip of hell.”

Their collective cluelessness concerning their “actual” circumstances leads more or less directly to a series of individual panics and rebellions, occasioned when members of the group start showing up dreadfully dead: one is sliced up with a knife; another corpse has a baseball bat stuffed down its throat (quite ghastly); and all that can be found of another is a head thunking around inside a clothes dryer (and this is clever — plenty of room for point of view creeper-zooms to a series of dryers, all running, one by one).

While you might imagine such elaborately gruesome business would bring characters together, even reveal details about them, for the most part, they remain sketches, defined by single traits: scary Robert, teary Ginny, grumpy Lou, ineffectual George, unconscious Alice. All the while, the other plot (the death row inmate not quite arriving on time to meet with his doctor and lawyer at the judge’s office) travels its parallel track. It doesn’t fit with the motel plot in a way that makes you know it will fit, crucially (and not so cleverly as it might have).

Ed is pressed into service to track the killer, along with Rhodes (who lets drop that he’s a veteran of L.A.’s Rampart Division, so, in case you hadn’t noticed previously, now you can be sure: he’s shifty). As expected, they run off screen into the rain a few times, sometimes together, other times not (producer [and Mangold’s wife] Cathy Konrad observes in the “On the Set” featurette, that “The rain really had to be sold as a kind of barrier to escape, but to film rain is really tricky…- So we created these amazing rain bars that have distance between where the rain can come out so the drops fall in spaces wider than normal rain. So you’re supposedly not supposed to get as wet. But I got news for you: you got wet!”).

“It was important to me,” says Mangold, “That we got real actors, that it wasn’t a kind of confection that was only about the thrills, but that actually, in the scenes between, before, and after violence or suspense, you’d be kind of really grabbed by these people and their stories.” Indeed, when Cusack and Liotta are on screen together, they are tremendous, absorbed in an intriguingly intertwined tension and trust, which leans toward the occasional pissing contest (both characters are self-contained and distrustful enough, so that neither gives up that much emotion, another bit of grist for these two compelling performers to chew on).

Still, Ed is the guy with whom you want to identify. He’s correctly rude to Caroline and suspicious of Rhodes when he needs to be; he’s kind to the child; and he appropriately confronts, then cozies up to, Paris — and Peet, not incidentally, throws some fine, even sublime, attitude: there’s really nothing this girl doesn’t do well, even the good-hearted hooker. That their relationship can’t develop much past tentative smiles and “Be carefuls” is obvious from jump, but it’s good to know that she’s picked the same guy you have.

It’s also good to know that she picks him mostly against her will and intuition. You might even trust her. Paris doesn’t know quite what you do, but she knows more than most anybody else in the movie, and not just because she’s the savvy girl in what amounts to a slasher film where the victims are adults. She assesses the men around her — the distraught dad, the sleazy cop, the limo driver who used to be a cop, and feels a certain attraction to Ed (“You’re a complicated cat, Edward,” she says, up close to his face, unafraid when he tries to bully her).

Identity drops all sorts of hints toward its eventually existentialish finale (in addition to its title, references to Being and Nothingness, dead ends, empty fuel gauges), as well as decent uses of generic clichés (the shadow with knife in hand, the zappy wires ripped loose from their plugs, the monster slamming on the bathroom door, and of course, lightning and thunder galore). And while the film’s last half hour feels like it’s run itself into a corner (or, maybe, a dead end), it isn’t wholly reducible to plotty sleights of hand (though these do occur). At its slowest, Identity goes through the motions. At its shrewdest, it raises questions about your own process of watching movies, your expectations and your strategies for identifying with characters.

The Identity DVD underlines all of these attributes. As Mangold observes, “You want to set up a situation where if you go back and watch the film a second time, from literally 30 seconds in all the way to the end, you’re seeing the film pointing the way toward the ending. Meaning that, a surprise ending is kind of cheap if it just feels like a slap upside the head, without any warning… The shock ending is a very wonderful commingling of anticipation and surprise.” Watching Identity a few times is all good. That said, the DVD includes the usual “Deleted scenes” (which needed to be deleted) and “Storyboard comparisons,” as well as the made-for-television making-of documentary, here “Starz: On the Set,” in which the actors and crew describe characters and concept in the most basic terms (for instance, Liotta says, “A lot of people start dying”).

John Cusack explains, “The actors are kind of serving this intricate plot. In a lot of films you have to do stuff where character motivates plot; this is one where in a way, the actors are kind of these elegant chess pieces; the writer and director are weaving these different stories.” Amanda Peet is easily the cutest, in her gray hoodie with the set all neoned up behind her: “Sometimes I have to just pinch myself because I can’t really believe it, that I’m working with Ray Liotta and John Cusack and everyone’s very supportive. As soon as everyone was together, it really came to life, and came off the page.” You believe everything she says.