I just watched James Mangold’s Identity (IMDB), a psychological thriller starring John Cusack in full “dark and stormy night” mode (has there ever been a film where he hasn’t gotten caught in the rain?).

The film starts quickly: After a shot of a tape recording of a psychological session between a psychiatrist and a mass murderer, we get a shot of a man carrying his badly injured wife into a lonely flea-bag motel. The clerk, mysterious and slightly effeminate (channeling his inner Norman Bates) tries to call an ambulance, but the phone lines are down. The film freezes briefly, and we get a brief flashback. A prostitute (with mandatory heart of gold) on the run from her past life has knocked out the line when she backs her car into a telephone pole. The film freezes again, and we get another flashback, and I’m hooked–the use of freeze frames to play with chronological time (and psychological time) is intriguing; the atmosphere is set beautifully.

Eventually ten people are trapped at the hotel. All the roads are closed; the one cell phone can’t get a signal; a police radio belonging to an officer transporting a criminal is also out. Very quickly, several of the guests begin dying sometimes mysteriously, sometimes quite violently. The enclosed space inspires paranoia among the group, and we are led to suspect several people: The creepy hotel clerk? The diligent cop? The benevolent limo driver (who happens to be reading Sartre)? Spirits from a Native American burial ground (thankfully the film doesn’t really go there)? We also discover, through a series of coincidences, that the guests have a few things in common. Meanwhile, the film occasionally crosscuts to a last minute appeal of the death sentence of the mass murderer.

I won’t give away what happens (although unlike the Salon reviewer, I had a pretty good guess), but for readers who have seen the film, I found the final turn rather dissatisfying, especially given the stylized visuals and the paranoid atmosphere that Mangold works so hard to create. It is sufficient to say that the resolution explains this paranoia and the intentionally cliched characters that meet in this desolate space, but once this violence was contained (metaphorically if not physically), the film ceased to be nearly as interesting. And unlike Roger Ebert, I felt cheated by the third act rather than impressed by its explanation. It felt cheap, like the screenplay was trying to trump other meta-thrillers such as Memento and Usual Suspects. Still, I enjoyed the film even though it felt more like an exercise in style: smooth and flawless, but relatively empty.

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