“The pure products of America/go crazy” — Poet William Carlos Williams wrote those lines in 1923. Eighty years later, director James Mangold makes them come alive in Identity, a dread-on cocktail of claustrophobia and psychosis that’ll do a lot for the filmmaker’s rep but even more for late-night video rentals for decades to come. Mangold’s feature debut, Heavy (1994), showed he could steer a great cast (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Shelley Winters, Liv Tyler and Deborah Harry) down the road to brilliance. And his Girl, Interrupted (1999) got Angelina Jolie a best supporting actress Oscar. So Identity should finally make fans pay attention when his name flashes on the screen.
One stormy night, 10 travelers find themselves stranded in an old motel in the middle of nowhere Nevada. All the roads leading out have been washed away and an amazing series of “accidents” gets things started before the bodies begin dropping other than accidentally.
Weezer: What a shocker! I was hoping for an above-average mystery-horror-thriller, but this was awesome …
Geezer: … way above average. But the trailer misrepresents it.
Weezer: Well, they don’t want to show too much … and they give you the false impression that this is going to be a slasher flick where “people start dying.”
Geezer: The film itself sets up what Hitchcock called a McGuffin, something that decoys you into a false expectation about the plot — here there are a few of those and one is kind of Stephen King-corny. But we can’t give away any details about this story, because if we do, we’ll get angry letters from readers about how we ruined it for them.
Weezer: The great pleasure of this movie is in watching it unravel. The writing is easily the strongest element, but that’s not to say that everything else isn’t strong — such as the acting by Amanda Peet, John Cusack, Ray Liotta, John Hawkes, Pruitt Taylor Vince … and I really like the guy (John C. McGinley) who plays the stepdad. He’s completely neurotic.
Geezer: He’s incredible — that guy walked right out of real life.
Weezer: And the more you know the other characters, the more extreme they get as the movie goes on, but it’s just a banding together of people. You’ve got two young kids who went off to Las Vegas to elope; you’ve got a gambler, a cop, a drifter …
Geezer: These people are mostly nuts …
Weezer: They’re all really out there …
Geezer: That girl who just got married, when she’s screaming in the bathroom, it’s like one of those daytime talk shows with Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer. All these people are in such pain and misery, and it’s like they’re doing it to each other … that’s the whole point of it.
Weezer: But it’s real, though. Even if the characters aren’t physically aggressive in the story, they fit so well passively, like they’re supposed to be like that. Liotta’s character is kind of quiet in the beginning and he’s really great.
Geezer: You really gravitate toward Cusack. He’s got the kind of face that Henry Fonda had. Whenever he starred in a movie back in the ’40s or ’50s, everybody loved him. Cusack has always been like that.
Weezer: In the face of all the awful shit that’s going on at this motel, he’s cool as a cucumber: He’s sewing up an incredibly large gash in this woman’s neck with needle and thread from a sewing kit. I think the greatest hint to his character is right at the beginning when, among all his possessions in the limo, he’s got a gun, his suit and a book of philosophy …
Geezer: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness … that was almost too much.
Weezer: That existential reference fits perfectly. But they try to string you along with little clues so subtly and so well that, though I usually can guess the end before it comes, this movie’s so fast-paced that you can’t even stop to think about them.
Geezer: When you see what those clues are about later, you say to yourself, “Oh yeah, there it is.” The guy who wrote Identity, Michael Cooney, was the writer and director for both Jack Frost movies.
Weezer: Those are terrible and hilarious.
Geezer: Identity reminded me of René Clair’s 1945 horror classic, And Then There Were None. It’s based on a story by Agatha Christie called Ten Little Indians where people stranded on an island get knocked off one by one.
Weezer: One of Identity’s characters even makes that reference, though she doesn’t call it by name.
Geezer: It’s a countdown movie, like Seven, but in a different way. And you also get the kind of convoluted plot like in The Usual Suspects. For anybody who loved those two releases, this is a can’t-miss experience.
Weezer: Oh, yeah … any intelligent movie fans who love the horror and thriller genres owe it to themselves to see it. And psychology majors or anyone who likes to read existential philosophy and think about the psyche should also go. It deals with some pretty in-depth, heavy stuff, but doesn’t go over people’s heads.
A lot of people are going to write this movie off, because the trailer does suck. But this time, take it from both the young and the old, it’s awesome.
George Tysh (Geezer) is the Metro Times arts editor. Bruno Tysh (Weezer) is a high school senior. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.