‘Identity’ is a killer: The zippy murder mystery/psychological thriller that could!

September 29, 2012

The year: 2003. The times: So different from today.

Nine years ago, I had recently finished a master’s degree but not found work at a daily newspaper. (Remember those?!) The Internet had yet to achieve its status as a nearly omnipresent component of first world living, although it was moving in that direction, and Apple was near the beginning of its current unparalleled streak of success. (The iPod was not quite two years old at the time, and not nearly as physically diminutive, digitally capacious or all-around nifty as today’s models.)

Streaming video was then a relatively new feature of the Internet. I remember fiddling around with my computer one night and viewing the different movie previews (trailers, in the biz) on a page on Apple’s website.

One of previews on that page was for Identity, a thriller written by Michael Cooney and directed by James Mangold. I still remember the tag line: “Identity is a killer.”

The preview intrigued me, but I had little intention of seeing the movie. I generally shy away from scary movies, and it was clear that Identity was full of killing. (It’s also very possible that I viewed the preview months after Identity hit theaters — on April 23, 2003, according to imdb.com.)

Some months back, I ended up reading the script for Identity on the web, and I enjoyed it. And just the other week, I actually watched the movie — legally, through a streaming video website, as it happens — for the first time.

My verdict? I liked it. It is well paced and hits a variety of notes. Over the course of the story, characters experience confusion, panic, terror, resignation, hope and redemption. A strong cast, led by John Cusack, carries the script through a few weak patches.

The story begins as several cars converge on an isolated Nevada desert motel and are trapped there when the rain washes out the road in two different spots.

Limousine driver Ed (Cusack) is desperate to get help for Alice York, a woman whom he accidentally hit and grievously wounded while driving a shrewish fading actress. But he eventually abandons the effort; the motel is completely cut off, with the storm even disrupting attempts to radio for assistance from a state corrections department vehicle.

Rhodes (Ray Liotta) is driving that vehicle; he was transporting a prisoner, played by a snarling Jake Busey. The prisoner’s escape from the not-very-secure motel room where he was handcuffed is followed by the discovery of the dismembered body of Ed’s passenger, which in turn is followed by the fatal stabbing of a 20-something man. It soon becomes clear that Alice York’s life is not the only one hanging in the balance — but it’s far from clear who at the motel can be trusted…

Intercut with the happenings at the motel are scenes from a midnight hearing that has suddenly been convened in a nearly deserted courthouse, despite the violent rainstorm outside. At issue is the mental condition of the vicious multiple murderer Malcolm Rivers, who is 24 hours from execution.

It takes a long time for the different threads of the movie to come together. There are a few developments that stretch credulity — worst of all, I think, is the temper tantrum thrown by the judge as the mental competency hearing begins — but I was willing to forgive them.

Cusack is in many ways the heart of the film. Amanda Peet does fine work as a (yes) prostitute with a good heart and good judgement. Alfred Molina puts in a moving performance as a psychiatrist. John C. McGinley, playing an awkward stepfather, and Clea DuVall, playing a frightened young woman, stand out along with Liotta and Busey.

Identity is frightening and intriguing and thrilling; it’s also tightly plotted and well-acted, and I’m very glad I watched it. If you’ve got a taste for psychological thrillers, you could do a lot worse than to give it a view.

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