James Mangold began his career as a director with the little seen 'Heavy', cemented his reputation by convincing Sly Stallone to pile on the pounds for 'Copland' and made good on his promise as a film maker to watch by steering Angelina Jolie towards an Oscar win with 'Girl Interrupted'. All of these films had a common thread running through them: They all dealt with characters who had to struggle with some form of 'disability', whether real or brought about by other people's perceptions of them. Whether it was Victor's weight problem in 'Heavy', Freddy's deafness in 'Copland' or Lisa's sociopathy in 'Girl...', it's clear that Mangold is comfortable dealing with the intricacies of human nature and, after a brief sojourn into the realms of romantic comedy with the risible 'Kate and Leopold', he's back on familiar ground with 'Identity'.
Although it probably doesn't appear that way to begin with.
Ten strangers find themselves stranded in a remote Motel in the middle of a freak rainstorm. One by one they arrive and, once their number is complete, one by one they start getting themselves murdered by an unknown assailant. So, so far so Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians', right? Well, that's exactly what the film wants you to believe. Mangold's tale sets itself up with a beguiling simplicity, in such a way that the viewer happily convinces themselves that they are watching nothing more than a by-the-numbers slasher flick. We find ourselves compelled to judge the film by the rules we have come to understand over the years of watching all those classic 'whodunnits'. All the characters have a familiar tone about them : The hard bitten cop, the newly wed couple, the creepy motel owner, etc, etc... all of them straight out of the 'mystery writing for beginners' handbook. So, naturally, the viewer starts making assumptions about the characters based upon past experiences - the cop's got to be hiding a dark, dark secret, the newly weds can't be as wholesome as they appear and so on and so on. And then Mangold plays his trump card and flips the entire movie, if not the entire story, completely on it's head and the viewer if forced to reassess everything they've witnessed over the previous hour whilst maintaining their full attention to the final reel, lest they be left behind as the plot delivers twist upon twist as it rattles towards it truly unexpected climax.
John Cusack may have received top billing in the cast list but this truly is a classic ensemble piece allowing the good performances (Amanda Peet as the stereotypical hooker-with-a-heart) to compensate for the not-so-good (Ray Liotta, disappointing here after his awesome turn in last year's 'NARC'.) But to be fair, this isn't a film about performances - there'll be no acting Oscar's awarded here come March 2004. It's a film that allows Mangold to indulge in his passion for the human psyche whilst wrapping the issues up in a popcorn friendly crowd pleaser. It may be true that the ending could be construed as a little too forced and some may find it a little hard to swallow but for the 75-80 minutes the precedes the denouement, the filmmakers should be allowed some forgiveness.
All in all, a more than satisfying trip to the multiplex for anyone who enjoys their thrillers with a little more intelligence that is the norm these days. As for Mangold and his (unhealthy?) obsession with human nature - I can't wait for his next film, 'Walk The Line', a biopic of country legend Johnny Cash who, let's face it, has had much more than his fair share of personal demons over the last seventy plus years.