RIORI Vol 3, Installment 65: James Mangold’s “Identity” (2003)

 

 



The Suspects…

John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John C McGinley, John Hawkes, Clea DuVall and Rebecca DeMornay, with Jake Busey, William Lee Scott, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Bret Loehr and Alfred Molina.


The Story

Ten strangers find themselves stranded at a remote desert motel during a raging storm a million miles from nowhere. They soon find themselves the target of a deranged murderer, and any one of them could be the killer. As their numbers thin out, the travelers turn on each other rather than trying to figure out who the real killer is.


The Rant…

Everybody loves a mystery. You ever take a moment as to ask why?

Is it your curiosity being piqued? The thrill of discovery? Nabbing the bad guy? Finally locating the lost TV remote (it was in the freezer, and that pint of Ben & Jerry’s you grabbed in a drunken haze is under the couch. Was)?

One of the best examples of illustrating the appeal of a mystery I caught—surprisingly—on an ep of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the cold open we learn that Captain Picard is mucking about on the holodeck, playing detective. He’s invited his friend Guinan to join him, since she expressed interest in what the appeal is humans see in solving a mystery.

They find themselves at gunpoint by some digitally-rendered tough promising hurt, demanding info on whatever. Suddenly a shot smashes through the window and the thug goes down. Picard is excited, much to Guinan’s confusion. She asks what’s next, and he asks who was this guy? What did he want? Why was his trying to kill us?

Picard lays it out, “We have to look for clues!”

Guinan asks, “And that’s fun?”

Picard grins and says, “And that’s fun.”

There is your geek-out moment for the day.

*takes small bow*

Forgetting the fact that Sir Patrick Stewart teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg to solve a murder in holographic, VR 1940’s San Francisco (there’s your second), that installment of ST:TNG was right. What’s the fun of a mystery, besides (hopefully) solving it? The thrill of the hunt. Pitting your wits against the quarry. See what you’re made of. Some guy has been killed. Whodunit? You up to the challenge, Sherlock?

By extension mystery movies are fun for the same reason, duh. It’s not like in reality, where detectives have a crime to crack, sure. A murder, theft, missing person, where their tub of Cherry Garcia got to, etc. With the real cops there’s a lot of pounding the pavement, jockeying the phone and lots and lots of paperwork. Briscoe and Logan made it look intense and fun, and you didn’t see them much at their desks did you? There were perps out there to shake down, dammit!

As much fun as the original Law & Order could be, the hour-long procedural (50 minutes, actually), barely half of your average episode were given over to the cops sniffing out the guilty party. With a mystery movie you not only get a lot more time to expand on character development, twists and turns, intrigue and do so blissfully devoid of commercial interruption. Speaking of which, how come there’ve never been an Ben & Jerry’s TV ads?

I’ll stop that now.

Time does make the difference. As analog to real life, certain infamous serial killer cases are still open, even years after the killings have ended. The Zodiac Killer, the Alphabet Murders, Jack the Ripper. I’m no forensic scientist, but what’s the sense in this? Okay, maybe the survivor’s have a bone to pick, awaiting closure. These almost-cold case files have been active for decades (and in a certain light, Jack’s conviction has been centuries in the making) to no avail. Why? Because the more time given over to cracking a case the greater the likelihood of it happening. In simpler term, tackle a mystery over a continuum permits more “study.”

Character study, psychological study, even a study of setting. Stretch it out, stir the pot and the mystery gets drawn out. In a good way. In a good mystery movie there must be room to breathe, space to let us buffs round up the usual suspects, take in as many clues as possible and time to cogitate what the blue f*ck’s going on. You gotta mull it all over in more that the almost half hour Dennis Farina and Michael Imperioli had.

Another key aspect of a good mystery flick—as demonstrated in the holodeck microcosm—is you should keep the setting tight. Small. Confined. Almost a character unto itself. It cuts away the distractions, the fat. The clunky mysteries I got subjected to often had this sprawling tableau. Fletch (which was really more a comedy with the mystery chewy center) wandered everywhere, from LA to Provo, UT. The Forgotten (which rambled on and on, despite the cool premise). Final Analysis (quit bumbling all over Boston Town). You get the idea.

Here’s when the isolation worked, almost to transcendent levels. Rear Window (Jimmy Stewart’s dumpy apartment and a trusty pair of binocs). Murder On The Orient Express (it’s a train, dummy). Memento (Guy Pearce’s bloody mind). It keeps us cinema detective focused; on the case, as it were.

The final key to a good mystery movie is an eclectic rogue’s gallery. In virtually every notable mystery flick we got us a freakin’ tossed salad as supporting cast. Again, Rear Window was a good example. The goofy Murder By Death and Clue were populated by real rogue’s galleries, despite both being parodies. The Usual Suspects was a given. The mishmash of disparate personalities keeps you guessing as to—you guessed it—whodunit.

That being said, Identity follows this formula to a T. We got a timeline to try and follow. We got an isolated scene of the crime. We got our weirdos. So the movie must’ve played out in classic fashion, and you kept guessing and scratching your head for the duration, right?

Well…let’s step onto the holodeck, shall we…?


Not much happens at Larry Washington’s (Hawkes) lonesome motor lodge. He’s planted in the middle of the Nevada desert, just south of nowhere. Like the Paul Simon song says: it’s a long, lonely life.

That is, until the storm hits.

Down the road apiece, nervous George (McGinley) and his family’s ride has a flat. He and his wife go out into the driving rain to inspect the damage, which is when George’s wife gets hit by Ed’s (Cusack) limo hauling fussy, near washed up actress Caroline Suzanne (DeMornay). She demands Ed leave it as a hit and run. Nothing doing. George’s wife is in mortal peril and needs help. A hospital beckons.

Too bad all the roads are washed out. Looks life Larry’s motel beckons instead.

Upon arrival Ed and crew meet with surly Detective Rhodes (Liotta) tasked to escorting violent criminal Robert Maine (Busey), all grinning and nuts. Faulty newlyweds Ginny (DuVall) and Lou (Scott), whose bickering belies a deeper problem. Paris (Peet) the hooker, who’s either on the run or planning to “get lucky” in Sin City. Now thanks to impartial Mother Nature all of them are stuck with Larry’s hospitality for the night.

But the night is not still in the desert, despite the rain.

Paraphrasing Keanu, strange things are afoot at Larry’s motor lodge.

Caroline’s desperate to calling her agent in LA. She scrambles out into the brush trying to find better reception for her cell phone. Then she ends up in one of the motel’s dryers, not choosing to do laundry, let alone find the rest of her body.

Great. We got a killer on our hands. Where’s Maine at?

He escaped the cuff attached to the plumbing only to find himself literally chewing on death.

What about Rhodes, his escort? He’s got a habit of disappearing.

And what the hell’s in Larry’s freezer?

It’s murder by numbers. One, two, three.

All apologies to Sting…


Identity is a modern day, B-movie, Hitchcock pastiche. This is not a bad thing. In fact, such a mish-mash makes the flick kinda fun. Kinda.

Like I said above, Identity has all the hallmarks of your classic—albeit simple, if not formulaic—mystery movie. Admittedly, the film’s story was lifted from the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None. But again this book was caged more times than a shoplifter rampant in a Wal-Mart populated by blind sales reps so let’s give that a pass, shall we? Identity is a classic but hackneyed story played out already a dozen times over. We’ll give that a pass, too. Hell, if it’s a formula that works, roll with it. Like I’ve been fond of saying regarding a film’s originality, it’s like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Despite Mangold being a solid director, he’s probably also a tad tone deaf. At least here.

Now. Either the guy was a total rip-off artist and hack with Identity, or f*cking brilliant in the movie’s delivery. At the outset the movie’s intro smacks of something, but it just might be every mystery movie ever made needed to introduce our future victims, yet just twistedly cheezy enough to keep you watching. Mangold sets the stakes fast, if a bit comically. Of course nothing is as it seems to be, within the story and without. The tension and intrigue begins to pile on, but in such a ramshackle fashion you’re not as to take it seriously or find it all laughable. Maybe Identity‘s supposed to be seriously laughable, I dunno. Middle America’s vote is still out on this one.

Keeping in mind The Standard (which we haven’t kept in mind for a coon’s age) dictates an assignment due to mixed reviews, Identity is the first flick here to deliver mixed signals. Messages, even. Here’s a way to twist the whole Ten Little Indians dynamic: troll the audience. I ain’t talking twists and turns here. I’m talkin’ playing on the audiences’ expectation. Tomfoolery over intrigue. Tugging your coat rather than planting seeds. In simpler terms: nyah nyah nyah.

It’s kinda cool in a way. Really.

I’ve seen other Mangold’s movies (including The Wolverine, which was covered here. He did a good job, and his latest Wolverine installment Logan is getting rave reviews) and he does above average yeoman’s work. He’s a journeyman director, like Richard Donner or Alan Smithee.

*pause for effect*

And the man’s pedigree is a varied one. We can go from Walk The Line to Knight And Day in a single breath, and go along with it with a tenuous grin. I mean, “Oh sh*t, where are we going?” There’s a difference (but very slight) between winking at the audience and tying the string around their loose tooth. Oddly, both often have the same effect.

So which side of the coin clattered down with Identity? We land on the edge, my popcorn-addled flock. Mangold is no doubt trolling us here, but it’s done in spite of ourselves. We know where we’re going here. We know that any one of these dweebs could be the killer, especially since motive is absent (that a spoiler?). We expect twists and turns to obfuscate the killer’s identity.We have established tension, but it’s a tad weak, and you could see it all coming. Yet we didn’t expect to find Caroline’s REDACTED. Most murder mysteries ain’t so graphic nor wink-wink, nudge-nudge in the same breath. Here’s a cute sample of Mangold f*cking with us, but not necessarily messing with our mind. Not outright. It’s the comic booky fun at work with Identity.

Identity is kind of chimera. An idle fancy. It’s as if Mangold asked himself, “How far can I stretch the audience’s suspension of belief?” It’s a puzzle, not a mystery. Identity is a Rubik’s Cube, not a chess board. It’s obviously inspired by Christie, but also Rashomon; the story is slick and slippery. You can’t get a tack. Mangold relies on trickery rather than intrigue. There’s a kind of goofiness to the movie. That B-movie flavor I alluded to above. Despite the dire stakes, some madman (or men) skulking around offing Larry’s guests, there’s a cardboard cheesiness lurking just below the surface. It has the feeling of formula, yet dodges it. Admittedly, I have to dig that.

And, doy, I gotta address our dramatis personae. We’ve got the best ensemble cast here that I’ve seen in a long time. At first, these actors have no business whatsoever sharing screen time together. Later we understand that anyone could be the killer; they’re all stereotypes after all. But again with the blues. For example, I often forget how protean Cusack can be, despite his comic bent. Liotta is so good at being mad. Hey, Peet can act (color me surprised)! DeMornay’s still alive (not for long here, ha ha) and is still hot! And McGinley set aside his desperate sarcastic schtick for being desperate and period. Okay, Busey is still weird, but still our cast is so colorful it gives us a little sugar to go down with the urine. Yeah, there’s a game afoot, but someone lost the instructions.

That lack of solid misdirection in Identity, paired with Mangold’s cagey direction makes this goofy murder mystery all the more sweet, if only barely palatable. The film insults our intelligence, yet you feel you gotta go along with it. What I’ve been pummeling for the past lifetime is thus: a good movie mystery can adhere to all the rules I laid out before, misstep and still be entertaining with the right director lording over a mediocre story. Better than the sum of its parts? I don’t know. Half the movie’s parts are stuck in transit from eBay with Identity.

The best thing I feel about Mangold’s direction and therefore Identity‘s atmosphere is that it never takes itself too seriously. It straddles the ridiculous. It has a steady, creepy funny vibe. A combo seldom found in anything Miss Marple ever unraveled. Even the big reveal is laughable, as if, “Oh James, you got us. Pop the balloons.” He got us all right. The finale is such a joke you’ll slap your head in disgust for falling into his trap. For following along. Going with it. D’oh!

Identity is a clear sample of having the joke on you. I might’ve overplayed my hand here. I had to be careful and select my words very carefully to not give away the progression of the mystery. And it wasn’t truly a mystery, either. It was a shuck and jive, and the attentive audience kept looking for a partner at the junior high dance. You’re better off glued to the wall, watching the few, brave characters on the floor.

In the end, with Identity connect the dots, erase, suspend what you expect then accept it, slap your head and laugh and then get pissed for being hoodwinked. It’s a good waste of time.

Just leave Larry’s freezer alone.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Never have I laughed so hard at myself for taking a murder mystery seriously. The mystery is really, “Why the f*ck did you watch this? For DeMornay’s boobies?” Uh, yeah.


Stray Observations…

  • “Did you feel that?” Kinda cheesy, but it worked.
  • Even for 2003, that’s an awful big cell phone there.
  • “I wish I had beige.”
  • This mess is like a murderous Gilligan’s Island on crack.
  • “I am very f*cking calm!”
  • Mangold indeed shows his strengths here, well put to his Wolverine movies.
  • “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with guard duty, per se.”
  • Kinda glad George got his. He got quite annoying quite fast.
  • “We’re all in Nevada.”
  • Does Cusack ever age?
  • “Yeah.”
  • So after all that’s said and done Malcolm is truly in the middle?

Next Installment…

Who would’ve know Mike Judge’s Idiocracy would prove so prescient so fast? Ask Putin (burn!).


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