Questions of difference and ‘Identity’

If you’re scared out of your wits by this film, it’s probably due to your fear of the dark

Steven Snyder

For better or worse, “Identity” will surely be one of the most discussed films of 2003. It is yet another project that relies on a major plot twist near its end, reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s much-touted recent films “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” The discussion generated by this thriller among viewers will center around the validity of this dramatic U-turn.

“Identity” is an entertaining film, without question. Even on a superficial level, the film is a thriller that will provide audiences with a fun story, a surprise ending and some memorable scares. But the question remains: Is it any better than a mediocre scare fest?

All the generic spooky elements are present in “Identity”: a rainy night, a flooded highway, a remote hotel and 10 guests who must survive the night with each other. Among them are the quiet and polite family, the hooker, the shady hotel manager, the estranged couple, the movie star, the limo driver and the police officer transferring a convicted killer. In an extreme and exaggerated game of Clue, guests start dying and suspicion swirls over who is to blame and how they can be stopped.

For the real truth behind the culprit, one must again return to “Identity’s” infamous plot twist. It is a moment that single-handedly glosses over the film’s earlier weaknesses, connecting all the dots in questionable form, and pre-emptively apologizes and rationalizes an absurd ending.

During the film’s earlier moments, the killings and the interactions between the characters are far-fetched. Each person and each scenario is a cliché taken to the extreme, and after a few bodies pile up, scenes meant to scare and thrill instead come off as laughably forced and predictable.

Some critics, in support of the film, have gone as far as to compare “Identity” to the works of Wilder or Hitchcock. Such comparisons are inane. In “Psycho,” fear was instilled through a sense of voyeurism, helplessness and humanism that made the proceedings seem believable and realistic.

Director James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted”), on the other hand, seems incapable of such patience or subtlety. The famous shower scene from “Psycho,” for example, would never occur in “Identity,” because it takes too much time to develop. “Identity” is never really concerned with any of its 10 characters. They are merely props to drag the story forward. And the film’s scares are not subtle, but obvious, more often inducing screams through shocks than genuine suspense.

But in the end it all comes back to that twist – a mammoth bend in the film’s story that supplies an excuse for the film’s shortcomings. For many, it will work perfectly, seeming appropriate when combined with “Identity’s” earlier events. But for others, it will be too transparent, obvious and weak to compensate for a failing story.

In either case, while “Identity” will satisfy almost anyone looking for just a fun, creepy Saturday night popcorn flick, it will forever remain a lesser work for one, blatant reason: Its success hinges on a surprise ending. When these twists work, such as in “The Sixth Sense” or “The Usual Suspects,” they add to the story and make a good film into something great. But in the case of “Identity,” it is used only as a buoy, aiding a mediocre film in keeping its head barely above water.

“Identity” is currently playing at area theaters.