17 March 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Who Are You? Who who, Who who
Because of what seem to be unusual circumstances, eleven people, strangers to each other outside of their respective "groups" (two families, two professional associations), end up stranded in a desolate Nevada motel on a dark, stormy night. One of the "strangers" is a death row murderer being escorted to another prison for execution. When bodies start turning up and the murderer goes missing, he's the obvious suspect. But things are not what they seem. Identity provides a "double mystery"--a traditional whodunit and an increasingly bizarre "rubber reality" mystery that we must figure out along with the characters.
This is my second viewing of Identity. I didn't like it quite as much this time, although it still earned a "B". The two aspects I had a slight problem with on the second go-round were one, the plot didn't quite envelop me to the same extent (maybe because I remembered the twist?) and two, since first watching it, I've seen a lot more films in the rubber reality genre, and Identity is nowhere near as mind-bending as many other examples. Still, this is a great film, with a lot of assets.
Director James Mangold effectively employs a number of interesting techniques here. The main standout in the first reel is the use of Tarantino-like "multiple viewpoint" shots, where we see the same span of time from one character's point of view, then another, then another. He also effectively creates two very attractive atmospheres, especially for fantasy fans--a "Twilight Zone"(1959)-like conundrum and a sustained dark ambiance. The Twilight Zone aspect makes itself most obvious beginning with the scene where the convict, Robert Maine (Jake Busey), tries to flee, but discovers that he's still at the motel, after all. The constant, Blade Runner (1982)-like rain underscores the dark ambiance, which is reminiscent of films such as Fallen (1998) and Se7en (1995).
While Identity isn't exactly a bastion of graphic violence, there are a number of strongly visceral scenes and shots that are extremely well done and effective for seeming realistic. The atmosphere is also greatly enhanced by the hotel set, which matches the Bates Motel from Psycho (1960) in dingy gloom. The film also has a wonderfully nihilistic ending.
Even though I wasn't as enraptured in suspense this time, one is still drawn into the film by the gradual quickening and spiraling of loss of control experienced by the characters. While slowly killing each one of them off as they're stuck in an isolated setting is a traditional "10 Little Indians" horror film motif that writer Michael Cooney employs, the Twilight Zone aspects allow him to trump the sense of horror and despair, as the surviving characters come to realize that they are not in charge of their own lives, they can't call the shots, and their illusions about their realities crumble before their eyes.
One of the negatives is that the rubber reality resolution is a bit too telegraphed, too overt. The solution is given too early, and ends up being spelled out note-for-note. It's a bit like giving a lecture on a joke right after one gives the punch line. It might be difficult to blame either Cooney or Mangold with this, however, as American film studios and test audiences are notoriously allergic to ambiguity, which is depressing, because I love ambiguity in films. Still, maybe the Identity is just easier to figure out when you've seen tens of rubber reality flicks. When I watched the film upon its theatrical release, I overheard more than one fellow theater-goer still trying to figure out the gist as the lights came up.
One might be tempted to claim that Mangold under-uses his fine cast--who all turn in excellent performances, including one of my favorite character actors, John C. McGinley. But on the other hand, it makes sense that there is this large number and broad range of characters. Under this scenario, you either under-use them or you've got a 3-hour-plus film (not that I'd complain about a 3-hour-plus film).
Of course the theme of the film, as well as all of the subtexts, has to do with personal identity, and especially veiled personal identity. None of the characters are who they seem. Most of them are lying to each other in some way when they first meet, and even some of the ones who know each other already are also lying to each other. Cooney and Mangold explore the various social facts, actions, ceremonies, rituals and so on that help provide personal identity for us, such as birthdates, names, residency, marriages, benevolent versus criminal or unethical actions, and occupations. They also explore a more dynamic identity of action, as relationships continually shift throughout the film.