By Joe Lozito
Blame it on M. Night Shyamalan. No, his "The Sixth Sense" wasn't the first thriller to have a twist at the end, but it was the one that set the mold for a slew of dull clones, none of which - including the director's own "Signs" and "Unbreakable" - can match the exhilaration of that 1999 classic. What "Sense" had going for it was the simplicity of its deception. It didn't require much to explain the ending; all the pieces fell into place so easily because there was only one piece out of place. In director James Mangold's "Identity", the latest in the line of "twist thrillers", the explanation is not only telegraphed way too soon, it still doesn't satisfactorily explain everything that preceded it - possibly because, without giving everything away, the resolution is something of a cheat. That's all I'll say about the topic. But the bottom line is, it leaves one feeling disappointed.
The hackneyed setup strands ten strangers at a motel that Norman Bates wouldn't be caught dead in on, yes, that's right, a dark and stormy night. The characters come in and out of the rain so often, it's a wonder that pneumonia isn't added to the list of silly ways characters get offed over the course of the film. In a dangerous gambit, screenwriter Michael Cooney actually has one of the characters mention the resemblance of this situation to Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" (the movie adaptation, of course, not the novel). Unlike that superior thriller, which invited the viewer to play along with the junior detectives, "Identity" feeds the audience clues and red herrings without an intention of giving away the secret until the "a-ha" moment, at which point too much time has past to even care anymore.
Mr. Mangold sets the tone of the film well - the rain is relentless and the lightning strikes at all the right times, but too often the film slips into slasher territory. The middle of the plot, which involves, yes, an escaped convict on the loose, is just a series of false scares and loud noises on the soundtrack - obviously padding by the screenwriter to make up for the lack of anything else to do with his story.
The film is populated with a very talented cast who acquit themselves well of the material. Ray Liotta and Amanda Peet are amusing in the way they take most of the horrible events in a sarcastic stride, Clea DuVall is a bit too shrill as a newlywed, and Rosanna Arquette is all but unrecognizable behind huge fake breasts as a prima donna actress. But holding everything together is the always-reliable John Cusack. Lending an undeserved weight to the film, Mr. Cusack plays an ex-cop turned chauffeur trying desperately to get a handle on the situation. As the only character with any dimension for the audience to hold onto, we sympathize with Mr. Cusack's Ed Dakota, not because we're afraid for his safety, but because we want to throw him a towel, say "give up, Ed, it's just not worth it" and walk him out of the theater.