In last year’s Adaptation , the blocked screenwriter charged with making a screenplay of Susan Orlean’s "unadaptable" book The Orchid Thief finds himself enslaved to a narrative that grows and grows in complication, accumulating layer after layer of reflexivity, until the only film-story the guy can think of to contain it is the entire history of the world, starting with the Big Bang. I thought about Adaptation while I was watching James Mangold’s new film, Identity , which was based on a screenplay by Michel Cooney. Like the impossible scenario Nicholas Cage is struggling with in Adaptation , Identity attains so much complexity in its first part that its ending is doomed either to a 2001-style cosmic implosion or just a big cop-out, a desperate third-act twist. Somehow, Identity manages to choose both options, and winds up a psychedelic cop-out.
Identity stars John Cusack, Ray Liotta, and Amanda Peet as three among ten unfortunate travellers who, driven by an infernal rainstorm, find themselves stranded at an eerie roadside motel in a Nevada desert. The first half-hour, depicting the mechanisms of fate that brings each member of this party to the motel, is brilliant, and sets the stage for a superior horror or mystery story–something like a coked-up version of the old Agatha Christie warhorse, And Then There Were None , fused with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But after each character has settled into the motel and the dead bodies really start piling up, disappointment descends. The movie becomes a stalk and slash thriller.
Nevertheless, as a fan of the genre, I was gratified by the film’s generous infusion of references to lesser known horror movies, and Identity ‘s second act maintains a high-level of suspense and intrigue, with some compelling performances (especially Cusack’s) and nerve-jangling scenes. It was only when the climax was reached, and it became painfully apparent that the narrative was not going to stop twisting, that it was going to keep on twisting and twisting until it tied itself into knots, and that then it was going to explode into a thousand equally absurd fragments, that I became frustrated. If the first fifteen minutes of Identity have a diabolical energy, the last fifteen are cruelly deflating, almost comical in their betrayal of what’s come before.
Although I will not give away its surprise, it was clear from the chortles around me that much of the nearly packed auditorium agreed with me that the final "twist" was ridiculous. Like many films that have come in the wake of such massive cult hits as Memento and The Usual Suspects , Identity is a puzzle movie. Unlike Memento or The Usual Suspects , when the final piece of Identity ‘s puzzle is finally in place, you’re likely to want to throw the whole picture away.
A quick final word: if you enjoyed the horror movie references in Identity , and have an extremely high tolerance for gore, check out Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses , a punk-rock pastiche of 1970s drive-in classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Motel Hell . Not a great film by any means, but fun for those who are nostalgiac for the good old days of nihilistic, grue-splattered, backwoods horror films.
You can find this review, along with other reviews of past and current film, theater, and opera, on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.