I don’t know if James Mangold would approve of me calling Identity a horror film. He might prefer thinking of it as “psychological thriller,” but that doesn’t change the fact that in its heart of hearts, it’s not a whole lot more than a slasher picture — a pretty savvy and hugely entertaining one, but a slasher picture nonetheless.
In the press kit for the film, the director invokes titles like Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Ridley Scott’s Alien (and there’s nothing wrong with that); but it’s impossible not to note that the one film directly quoted within film itself is the somewhat less respectable My Bloody Valentine. Considering that screenwriter Michael Cooney was responsible (as both writer and director) for Jack Frost and Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman, Identity’s genre roots are probably inescapable.
The question remains whether or not Mangold is himself in on the joke. The casting of ’80s sub-icon Rebecca De Mornay (one time Gilbert and Sullivan-addicted psycho in the career-killing The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) as a bitchy, has-been movie star with “first victim” written all over her suggests he was — as does the constant barrage of thunder-and-lightning atmospherics and the enjoyable over-the-top playing of the cast. (Does Cooney’s script really have people say things twice? Or are such overwrought nuggets of dialogue as “She won’t stop bleeding; she won’t stop bleeding,” “There’s been an accident; we had an accident” and “We couldn’t get out; we couldn’t get out” later embellishments?)
It’s really too bad that Mangold insisted on making the film sound more pretentious than the deliriously classy schlock it actually is. Yes, he’s right about its twists and turns and the claustrophobic appeal of its largely one-set location, though these convolutions are more goofily enjoyable than surprising. (I felt like Groucho Marx in The Big Store saying, “I told you in the first reel he was a crook,” when my early pronouncement of who the killer was proved on the money.) And its mostly one-set location probably has less to do with than with any aesthetic decision as it does with the fact that, Cooney’s Jack Frost outings to one side, he is principally a playwright.
Taken on its merits as a horror flick, Identity is a lot of fun. The whole premise of 10 people stranded in an isolated location during a thunderstorm is a classic horror setup (think The Cat and the Canary or The Old Dark House), and having them killed off one by one by a mysterious killer is both classic horror and classic Agatha Christie (And Then There Were None).
The key to it all lies in an apparently subordinate plot involving a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) trying to prove the insanity of a convicted murderer (Pruitt Taylor Vance) just hours before his execution. And though the much-discussed twist at the beginning of the film’s third act is a little hard to swallow, there’s no denying that all the clues necessary to lead it are nicely in place — at least the viewer isn’t cheated in this regard. There is some sense of cheating in the film’s final “shock,” but that’s mostly because the sequence goes on far too long for the viewer not to realize he or she is being set up for a “surprise” ending. Then too, the identity of the killer is utterly preposterous, though the film’s explanation makes it acceptable (if not exactly giggle-free). Still, it’s hard to dislike any film in which characters are stranded when a car tire is punctured by running over a hooker’s stray “f**k-me pump.” As a plot device, that ranks pretty high on the unique scale.
Mangold remains an interesting, accomplished director, but he also remains somewhat outside the realm of convincing auteurs, having no apparent personality of his own. Finding a tenable connection between Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, Kate and Leopold and Identity is far more unlikely than unraveling the intricacies of his latest film. At best, he seems to be a more intellectual Steven Soderbergh. (I doubt Mangold’s tendency toward a certain sloppiness — a man from 1876 knows all about operas written years later (Kate and Leopold); a Florida orange grove is pictured with a mountain range in the background (Identity) — qualifies as a directorial signature.) But he makes stylish adult entertainments with more thought and theme than your average blockbuster, and there’s something to be said for that. And Identity only adds to his scorecard in that capacity.