In the opening sequence of Identity, starring John Cusack and Ray Liotta, we’re shown a series of near-death experiences as drivers attempt to navigate a remote stretch of Nevada highway at night during a torrential rainstorm. The scenes — in which the camera shifts rapidly from sheets of rain, to frantic-but-ineffective windshield wipers, to tight shots of increasingly anxious drivers — are presented as brief, very tightly edited flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Unfortunately, the rest of the film fails to measure up to the artistry of its opening. Identity is the worst sort of Hollywood film, cheap and crass with pretensions to philosophical gravity.
The film begins provocatively enough, with a dual plotline we are invited to piece together. One storyline involves the last-minute appeal of the execution of a serial killer, convicted for committing a series of grisly murders one night at a remote locale. In the other storyline, the one depicted in the opening scene, a group of seemingly unrelated individuals winds up spending the night at a remote hotel, a place reminiscent of — you guessed it — the Bates motel. The film is sometimes predictable, sometimes unpredictable, and always unsatisfying.
The filmmakers have managed to avoid directly invoking the rules of the horror genre — e.g., anyone who says “I’ll be right back” must die, as must anyone drinking, taking drugs, or having sex; those were already spoofed in the Scream trilogy, which, like Identity, was produced by Kathy Conrad (wife of Identity director Joseph Mangold). Still, far too many of the film’s events are boringly predictable. Following the shock of the first murder, there’s the obligatory group discussion about what to do now, which ends with the people splitting up: “You folks stay here while we go investigate.” Of course, there has to be at least one young couple having relationship difficulties; in a pique, they split, and then — well, you know what happens then. Then there’s the moment of relief, when they think they’ve captured and subdued the culprit… but, of course, they haven’t. And don’t forget the Jennifer Love Hewitt moment from I Know What You Did Last Summer, consisting of a nubile young woman who just can’t take it anymore running outside screaming, “What do you want from us?”
Meanwhile, back at the hearing, our serial killer’s lawyers and medical team produce notebooks that look just like John Doe’s notebooks in Seven. In this case, different sections are written in dramatically different styles. Get it? That’s proof of a split personality. It’s also supposed to add to the bewildering set of clues we’re asked to try to unravel in search of the killer’s identity. But identity is a slippery, elusive thing in Identity. The difficulty is that by the time the big, unpredictable revelation arrives, viewers will have long since lost interest in the silly plot and its characters — quite an achievement for a film that’s only 90 minutes long.
John Cusack, whose performances I usually enjoy, is initially captivating as Ed, the limo driver with a past, but the filmmakers have chosen cheap and implausible methods to reveal his secret depths. In one scene, a suspicious female member of the group forcefully accuses him of hiding something. All he has to do is claim he’s an ex-cop and she turns on a dime to say fawningly, “You’re a complicated cat, Edward.” The other big name in the film is Ray Liotta, who shows about as much range in the entirety of this film as he did in the final scene of Hannibal — the one where he’s anesthetized so Lecter can make a gourmet meal of scraps of his brain tissue.
The biggest problem with Identity is that it wants to be taken seriously. Mangold compares its plot to those of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, for playing with “time, memory, reality, and nightmares in a fascinating way.” Unlike the Bogart classics, however, this film is rife with pretentious rot. After Cusack causes a serious car accident, for instance, the self-involved actress he’s driving urges him to flee. “If you get out of this car, it’s your responsibility,” she chides. His response: “It is my responsibility.” The filmmakers then take pains to show us that Cusack is reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. And the point of this is what, exactly? To inform us that he’s heroically embracing his existential situation, freely accepting responsibility for the consequences of his actions? Or is it supposed to foreshadow the debates about identity and multiple personality that ensue? Is the killer on death row someone, or no one, or many interesting individuals all wrapped up in one body? Speculation is fruitless, because the filmmakers think just introducing such questions will make Identity profound. But once the opening sequences are over, the film actually offers precious little to provoke thought.
Of course, even bad horror films can provide some good scares, or at least moments of campy humor. And the movie does contain a few good scares, especially early on. For my money, however, Session 9 (2001) is both more frightening and more effective at inducing disorientation; what Mangold had hoped to do with the hotel in Identity — namely, to make it a “character in the movie” — Session 9 manages much more successfully with its own backdrop, an abandoned insane asylum. Identity will make you wistful for a reasonably entertaining, low-budget film such as Session 9 — or even for old-fashioned, unpretentious serial killers like Jason, or Freddie, or Jason’s mom.
— Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor and chair and professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld. Hibbs was recently named dean of the Baylor University’s new Honors College, effective this summer.