Identity, an Agatha Christie-style thriller from director James Mangold (Copland, Girl Interrupted), starts off promisingly enough, with a group of seemingly random travelers stranded at a run-down highway motel, cut off from the outside world by a torrential storm. Ed (John Cusack), the limo driver of former movie starlet Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay), has accidentally run over the wife of George (John C. McGinley), and has taken her to an ominously deserted motel, which becomes populated by a group of strangers: prostitute Paris (Amanda Peet), newlyweds Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott), police offer Rhodes (Ray Liotta) and the crazed murderer he’s transporting (Jake Busey), and the hotel’s skittish proprietor Larry (John Hawkes). One by one, the frazzled guests begin turning up dead, with numbered room keys placed alongside their corpses to indicate some sort of ritualistic murder countdown. Panic sets in, followed by the rain, which pours down in violent sheets as though heaven’s wrath was being unleashed upon the establishment’s new residents.
Mangold sets his stage efficiently, jumping back and forth in time to quickly get introductions out of the way and drowns the film in silky blacks that are occasionally broken up by the moldy yellows of the motel rooms. Once the characters settle in to their new home, his camera’s oblique angles and shadowy mise-en-scène lend a mounting tension to the elimination game at hand, and for a time the answers to the mystery remain entertainingly elusive. When Rhodes’s psychotic charge goes missing, an obvious culprit for the crimes becomes clear—until, that is, the psycho himself winds up with a baseball bat stuffed halfway down his throat. Murders continue to pile up, the bodies begin magically disappearing, and talk of evil spirits (the motel was built on a Native American burial ground) soon begins to hint at supernatural forces at work.
In retrospect, one wishes that the evildoer on the loose were actually a Native American specter out for revenge. Instead, the story begins to coalesce with a parallel tale about a last-minute hearing for Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a convicted murderer who is scheduled for execution by the state the next day. As the killer’s psychiatrist, Alfred Molina has a wacky theory for his patient’s innocence and recovery, and it quickly becomes clear that what began as a taut riff on Christie’s Ten Little Indians (hence the Native American mumbo jumbo) is really nothing more than a preposterous thriller saddled with an unsatisfying Sixth Sense-ish surprise twist.
I’m sure that a second viewing would reveal a host of subtle clues that foreshadow the narrative’s 180-degree turn, but this gimmicky whodunit never convinces us that it would be worth slogging through again. Identity is very pleased with its supposedly clever but completely nonsensical ending, and it’s a tribute to the cast that they continue putting forth effort all the way up to the anticlimactic finale, by which point their characters’ plight has simultaneously taken on heightened significance and become totally irrelevant. Michael Cooney’s screenplay amounts to nothing less than a New Age psychological exorcism, but if the human mind functioned in such an easy-to-operate fashion, I would have permanently erased the memory of Identity‘s ludicrous third act from my mind by now.