Some fancy footwork in the writing and directing can’t disguise the hoary “Ten Little Indians” origins of “Identity.” A snappily executed little thriller set entirely at a remote desert motel in which the body count of occupants is tallied via a quickly accumulating set of room keys, this glorified programmer keeps the viewer guessing about the killer for a while, but features a twist ending that will be as painfully obvious to some as it will be a complete surprise to others. A smart campaign looks to generate good short-term biz for Sony.
Scouring about for a fresh “Old Dark House”-style location in which to trap a set of seemingly unrelated characters, British scribe Michael Cooney (the “Jack Frost” pics and the West End stage hit “Cash on Delivery”) has come up with a good one in a Bates-like establishment in the Nevada wastes that becomes inescapable due to torrential rains. From first frame to last, the water pounds down, cutting off the roads and phones (cell phones don’t work well around here, either) and creating a sense of unrelieved pressure on the hapless characters, who skulk around like a pack of wet dogs trying to evade a relentless predator in their midst.
In a framing device the import of which is long kept mysterious, the case of multiple murderer Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is brought up for a new hearing just hours before his scheduled execution. Cut to the motel, where a distraught George (John C. McGinley) turns up on a rainy night carrying the bloody body of his wife Alice (Leila Kenzle), their dazed son Timmy (Bret Loehr) in tow.
Jazzing up the calcified format any way they can, Cooney and director James Mangold play little games with the time sequence. Liked practiced card dealers, they rapidly shuffle events to show how cop-turned-chauffeur Ed (John Cusack), driving over-the-hill prima donna actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca DeMornay) home from a film shoot she just quit, accidentally ran over Alice, then helped to save her life and get her to the nearest shelter; how low-rent hooker Paris (Amanda Peet) abandoned her convertible and caught a ride with Ed, who later ditched his own car and returned to the motel with bottom-feeder newlyweds Ginny and Lou (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott); and how tough cop Rhodes (Ray Liotta) was forced into an unwelcome pit stop while transporting demented murderer Robert Maine (Jake Busey).
Once the first victim’s head is discovered knocking around in an industrial clothes dryer a half-hour in, the corpses begin piling up rapidly. When Rhodes foolishly allows his prisoner to escape, suspicion instantly falls upon Maine, but when the latter is found with a baseball bat down his throat, and the pace of the killings accelerates thereafter, panic and dread compete as prevailing emotions among those left alive.
The pressure cooker environment and the on-edge, if not edgy, characters keep things lively for a while, but the familiarity of the concept and essential thinness of the conceit show through well before the brief running time expires. While the key revelation is kind of creepy, not only does it lack the shock value that might have been intended, but it seems increasingly implausible the more you think about it, cheapening the piece considerably in retrospect.
Working with uniformly one-dimensional parts, performers do their bit to contribute some flavor. In a rare conventional project, Cusack steers clear of stock heroics by underplaying Ed’s competence and essential smarts, while Liotta registers only minor variations on notes he’s hit before. A welcome live-wire whenever she’s on, Peet seems all but bursting to play a multi-faceted character for a change, and McGinley is now looking more like Rudy Giuliani than James Woods does. Everyone else alternates between distraught and jumpy.
Atmospheric pic has the feel of a stylistic exercise for Mangold, who has shown a leaning toward character-driven dramas in the past, and he handles it proficiently, with key help from lenser Phedon Papamichael and editor David Brenner, both of whom do exemplary work. Mark Friedberg’s motel set shows no telltale signs of its studio confines, and Alan Silvestri’s score busily tends to keeping the tension up.