Year: 2003
Studio: Columbia
Director: James Mangold
Writer: Michael Cooney
Cast: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Alfred Molina, John C McGinley, Jake Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rebecca De Mornay, Marshall Bell

James Mangold is one of those quiet directors who doesn't make much of a splash or a name for himself in a certain genre, but whose movies have always been on just the right side of respectable to Hollywood movie fans. After the powerful but simple fable Cop Land.

Since then he's leaped comfortably between genres ranging from mental illness angst (Girl, Interrupted) to syrupy rom-com (Kate & Leopold). He's just as comfortable bringing us the nail-biting thriller Identity (despite a handful of minor stumbles), and is supported by an eclectic blend of performers and an intriguing idea.

No matter how clumsy some old-fashioned whodunits are (and let's face it, there've been some shockers), it's a classic premise that's very hard not to be drawn into. Identity has the requisite guessing games of a good murder mystery, and it's a serious test on the nerves as well.

One archetypal dark and stormy night in desert Nevada, a variety of strangers with very distinct backgrounds all converge (thanks to a tightly coincidental train of events) on a flyspeck motel - all in varying degrees of desperation or terror, and all for different reasons.

Things go from bad to worse as they start turning up dead, but that's not all. While the ever-dwindling group of survivors tries to find out who the killer is, things get weird as well as terrifying. The dead all have sequentially descending room keys. Bodies disappear. People know more than they're letting on. And the whole time, you're left guessing what all this has to do with the opening sequences - of a serial killer about to be executed and the defence psychologist trying to use new evidence to save him.

There's no particular buildup for the twist you're waiting for, and it makes you wonder why it happens where it does. But it's an astounding turn of events and it comes as both good and bad news. The good news is the satisfaction of it explaining almost everything. The bad news is that from then on, most of the terror about the plight of those in the motel is lost. To say why would give too much away, but the proceedings run somewhat out of steam in the last five minutes as the tension mostly evaporates.

The final scene is a nice touch and rounds things off, but the meat of the story is the mystery at hand. Clues are everywhere, the sort you'll recognise in hindsight (even in the title of the movie itself).

It's been a long time since such a diverse mix of characters have been bought together for a Hollywood film, several of them in roles we've never seen them play before. In fact, it's the casting as much as anything that keeps us guessing, wondering who's important enough to live a bit longer.

The ever-likeable John Cusack is a great flawed hero. John C McGinley has one of those faces you always recognise, and he's as comfortable in Identity as he's been in everything from The Animal.

80's Hollywood babe Rebecca de Mornay is almost unrecognisable as a has-been actress (inspired bit of casting, that), and Amanda Peet - who's graced comedies from the silly (The Whole Nine Yards) - gives the role of the call girl-on-the-run passionate realism.

Brooding music, slow steps into dark rooms where you just know something's going to jump up in front of you and occasional bursts of shocking and realistic violence give Identity its horror aspect, but it's better as a nail-biting thriller. James Mangold and screenwriter Michael Cooney (known for writing and directing the straight-to-video slasher parody Jack Frost) haven't quite outdone the great Hitchcockian murder mysteries, but they pay them reverent homage.

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