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It seems that Hollywood is all too often devoid of an original thought. After decades of watching films I get that feeling of déjà vu a bit too frequently. When I heard the plot of Identity I immediately though of the Agatha Christie classic ‘Ten Little Indians’, a group of ten people gathered together while one by one they begin to die. Much to my delighted surprise this film represented a novel twist on the haggard theme. Naturally there are elements of previous thrillers, the dark, stormy night, the lonely road and the motel in the middle of nowhere. The film opens with an accident on the road, limo driver Rhodes (John Cusack) takes the family and his client, an fading film start Caroline (Rebecca DeMornay) to a near by motel. There they meet the typical strange assortment of people. It seems that there is a group of people awaiting the decision on the stay of execution for a convicted criminal Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince). There is the doctor (Alfred Molina) waiting for the criminal. At the motel the cop (Ray Liotta) joined by the hooker (Amanda Peet) and the requisite young couple played by Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott are pulled into the growing terror. Very soon the slaughter begins and the number of victims increases. What is special about this film is it lulls you into thinking it is standard Hollywood faire. The first two acts seem to be leading to a predicable conclusion but the writers offer a twist at the end that will wake you up real fast. I like it when the writers know more than the audience about the plot, when they can still manage a surprise or two. There are enough interactions both in the main plot and the back story to elevate this tale to unexpected enjoyment. Recently the trusty genre of the thriller has degraded into something more akin to the slasher horror flick, special effects and fake blood substitutes for story, acting and direction. It seems that most thrillers take it for granted that the audience is cattle like, unable to remember details. This movie ultimately respects the viewer and has expectations that they will follow the intrigue as it unfolds. This is the type of movie that you can discuss with others that gain more on subsequent viewings. It is difficult to describe this film since it depends more on the synergy created rather than any individual element. While admittedly not the best representative of the genre is it so far above its recent peers that it will become a defining influence on subsequent implementations of thrillers.

While casting is important for any film in this particular type of flick it is paramount. Unless the cast can come across with the proper interactions, just the right chemistry, the viewer will not be able to identify and the sense of danger will be lost. This movie is populated by actors that have honed their craft and that pop up in the most unlikely roles. Cusack is capable of taking on almost any role. Here, he is the corner stone that anchors the rest of the cast and is easiest for the audience to identify with. One of my personal favorite situations in film is the reasonable man pressed into unreasonable circumstances. Liotta always seems to play roles that involve the law, either as the tough cop or the lawbreaker. Here is characterization drives the action and maintains the pacing. DuVall is one of the most under appreciated actresses around today. She wears her roles like a comfortable set of old clothes. Like her performance in ‘Girl, Interrupted’ she may be surrounded by powerful performances yet her contribution is necessary to flesh out the story. Amanda Peet is another actress like that. She gives a strong presentation here that shines out almost from the background. As the beaten down hooker she provides pathos for the audience. This group of professionals weaves their performances together like an ensemble cast that can anticipate each other. With a story like this that seems to be run of the mill and builds slowly to its conclusion the cast has to keep the audience caring about what will happen next. Fortunately, this cast is able to pull this task off.

Director James Mangold may not have a lot of films to his credit but the films on his resume represent quality productions. From ‘Girl, Interrupted’, ‘Cop Land’, ‘Kate & Leopold’ and ‘Heavy’ each film shows the growing talent of this man. Like his previous films this one depends on the proper atmosphere to reinforce the mood set by the actors. He uses the sets to create the boundaries for the story and a platform for the performances. Pacing is all important here. As mentioned above this film seems in the first two thirds to be just another predicable flick but the ending has twists that make it worth while. The story enfolds rather than how most thrillers just push you into an abyss of mayhem. Mangold is capable of drawing the audience in and holding us there. The decision to use the wider than normal 2.40:1 aspect ratio brings the audience into a broader canvas that Mangold paints with a dark and foreboding brush. He also uses the audio to its best advantage. The creepy feeling is almost subliminally reinforced with the choice of music cues and Foley effects.

The mastering of this DVD should be used by other studios as a template for how it should be done. The technical features of the DVD format are put to its paces. The anamorphic 2.40:1 is very well done. The video is free of defect and amazing clear considering all the dark sets. The audio gives a good work out to all speakers. The bass booms, the rear speakers place you in the middle of the action. The use of seamless branching for the presentation of the alternate ending is how it should be done rather than how many studios just tag on an alternate ending as an extra rather than letting you choose which version you want to experience. There is a more interesting than usual director’s commentary. Mangold goes into the background of his decisions for this production. There are also an optional director’s comments on the deleted scenes included. Rounding things out is a Starz behind the scenes featurette and some storyboards for your consideration. While this film had a short run in the theaters don’t over look it as part of your home collection.

Posted 11/1/03

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