Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 12, 2003 4:27 pm 
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Multiple Plot Disorder

"Identity" isn't as surreal as David Lynch, but it makes so little ultimate sense that it's one of those films people like to theorize about. "The little boy is the core of evil in the convicted murderer that won't go away even when his multiple personalities are smashed" -- that kind of thing.

But the fact is "Identity" exists as a game -- it's full of the fact that it's just a movie -- with a handful of pretty big stars (John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Alfred Molina), a bunch of character actors (the rest) and an aging star who plays an aging star ("Hey, didn't you use to be the actress…?") -- Rebecca De Mornay, who seduced Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" and now seems to be wandering around in the rain in heels looking for a job.

These actors are performing in a murder mystery that turns into a horror movie every time there's another murder, which is pretty often. Ten people are all stuck in a very run-down big spread of a motel in a terrible, downright flood of a rainstorm that blocks off all roads out and cuts off phone lines and electricity: it's the classic safe place that's totally unsafe, and one by one people start getting killed or dying off. Each one has a back-story that's hazy or fishy or both.

It's all pretty gruesome (heads literally roll), but it's juicy fun and if you pay attention, even if you get chills, even if when you get home you want to sleep with the light on, you still never forget for five minutes that it's all a game. In a "Psycho" conceit (the plump ghost of Hitchcock hovers over the whole enterprise) De Mornay gets attacked most terrifyingly outside, not in a shower -- but wrapped in a shower curtain. How come the cop is wearing a shirt with a bloody hole in the back of it? Where has the prisoner gone, and what is the hotel clerk up to? If you don't think this is a series of cunning jokes and riffs, you certainly will when the clerk explains with defensive bluster why he keeps a big fat dead man in the freezer.

This is crazy stuff, pulsing with energy, and everybody is posturing and overacting and yelling at each other like mad. There's no logic to it except a kooky mindless conspiracy kind: the deaths are occurring in descending order of the numbers on the victims' room keys, and the people present turn out to have similar birthdays. It's really, mainly, just designed for chills and thrills, with the powerful momentum of high pitched action, scary music at all the right times, and the rumble and roar of the rain storm over all to keep us feeling cozy and dry in our seats.

Following a classic mystery pattern, the successive murders make no observable motivational sense except to eliminate any suspects that arise, starting with the "prisoner" "cop" Ray Liotta has in tow. It turns out he's not the only prisoner, and three people are hiding corpses. But this wouldn't happen because one cop wouldn't be moving two dangerous prisoners in a car -- would he?

So what? There's no time to think. The fun never stops and the colorful cast keeps vying for attention: the aging actress, the nervous, hangdog man with the seriously injured wife and the mute son (who really is, in a way, the center of the piece), the slick whore (Amanda Peet, who looks far too preppy and elegant for her role, but what the hell: she's a Hollywood whore), the responsible, take-charge ex-cop (John Cusack), the explosive, violent fake cop (Liotta); the scruffy newlywed couple; the scrawny motel clerk. The screen just teems with these schematic personalities and the setting itself, the flimsy doors, with their loose room numbers, the dingy, peeling paint; the bad plumbing, the menacing laundry room, the ever-present downpour -- they all delightfully scream for our attention.

It's all empty. It doesn't mean a thing. And that's the point. Because somewhere else there's a late night hearing before an annoyed judge to reconsider an appeal of a killer who's about to be executed. And this motel stuff is all happening inside this killer's mind. The motel rooms are stocked with his multiple personalities. John Cusack is really a big fat man (Pruit Taylor Vince)! It's an old trick and it works. Only, if it's all happening inside his mind, how come we see it so vividly on the screen? Because we're inside his mind. Hey, that's creepy! And it's so corny! But it works! As long as you don't take it very seriously. (Please don't.) The finale is just a trick out of The Twilight Zone: shrink Alfred Molina explains the completely far fetched reason why his client must be transferred to a mental institution instead of killed: not because he's crazy as a loon, but because his treatment, and the murders we're seeing, is eliminating all the multiple personalities that have blinded him to the reality of his crimes. (What?!) And he gets off, he's taken to the mental institution, and before he even gets there (poor Alfred Molina). . . he starts to kill again. And that little boy (poor Amanda Peet) is the last….remaining….one…..alive! And he really was the spookiest of all the characters, after all! Yes!

There is a peculiar Hollywood malaise evidenced here, most likely to occur toward the end of a particularly deceptive thriller, something we might call "multiple plot disorder."

Really if you start analyzing the plot too carefully, even though like any mystery story it carefully plants its trippy clues (like that bloody hole in the back of the cop's shirt) for anyone who watches closely or goes back to watch again, "Identity" is still basically an amiable slick shambles, because it's designed not for rational content, but for maximum effect, to manipulate and confuse us and provide us with a generous supply of thrills and chills. . It makes no ultimate sense, but it's continually entertaining. The filmmakers -- specifically director James Mangold and writer Michael Cooney (the latter's last opus was "Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman") are in good form and they are having outrageous amounts of fun. They use classic devices from sources ranging from Hitchcock to "Blair Witch Project," and they don't take their hokiness seriously the way M. Night Shyamalan does.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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