A few months ago, I went to San Francisco. I don’t make it out to SF all that much, primarily because I don’t have a car and it’s a long damn bus ride. But when I do go, I usually try to get in a trip to Rasputin’s because, man, I just love that place. On my last visit, I bought a movie for three dollars purely because I knew it’d be fun to review. That movie?
Oh, Identity. I’m not even quite sure where to begin with you.
Okay, I tried really hard to create a Spoiler Free section of this review, but that pretty much eliminated everything I wanted to talk about. So if you haven’t seen this movie, I’d advise against reading this, for SPOILERS will abound. Boy, will they.
Ten strangers find themselves trapped at a roadside motel in the middle of a terrible storm. None of them seem to be having a very good night . . . and that’s before they start getting killed off one by one.
1. Okay, I take it back. I know exactly where I want to begin:
As I was going up the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d go away.
I actually first saw this movie in theater, and guys, let me tell you, it took some serious effort not to throw my Milk Duds at the screen straight away. The movie begins with Malcolm (Pruitt Taylor Vance) reciting the poem above, and while the recitation itself doesn’t bother me, I take issue with the fact that Malcolm claims he came up with it himself because, uh, no he didn’t. The poem is called “Antigonish” and was written by Hughes Mearns, like, a century ago. All Malcolm Rivers did was screw up the wording a little. Fuck you, Malcolm Rivers. You’re a godamned liar.
(There, Mekaela. I hope you’re happy. See, Mekaela’s favorite part of this movie is when I grind my teeth, trying not to rant about this for the umpteenth time. Specifically, her favorite part is when I fail.)
2. So, here’s the thing: I kind of like this movie. It’s not really all that good — one of the Big Twists is boring, while the other is just patently ridiculous — but I have fun watching it despite the fact that some parts of it (okay, most parts of it) are just so dumb. Of course, I’m a sucker for this type of story — it’s yet another mystery where strangers have to figure out how they’re all secretly connected before they can escape.
Let me go ahead and tell you how they’re all secretly connected:
This is the aforementioned Malcolm Rivers, notorious serial killer and poetry plagiarizer. Malcolm is sentenced to be executed the very next day, but a last minute hearing in the middle of the night changes all that. Dr. Alfred Molina wants to prove that his patient has dissociative identity disorder, otherwise known as multiple personality disorder, and that he shouldn’t be executed because only one of his personalities is responsible for all these terrible crimes. Also, his personalities are all fighting for their lives, so to speak, because Rivers is under some kind of experimental treatment where all his personalities are meeting one another, and by meeting, I mean being hunted by the One Killer Personality.
So, yes. These people?
They’re all Malcolm Rivers’s split personalities, and 9/10th of this movie takes place in his head.
There are so many things wrong with this.
The first and most obvious problem is that this is not how DID works. And admittedly, I’m not an expert — I took one Abnormal Psychology class like a decade ago. I will not be pretending I have firsthand knowledge of the subject, certainly not when the whole diagnosis seems to be controversial anyway. But from the mighty ten minutes of research I actually did — yeah, I’m pretty sure the creators of the film didn’t even do that much. This is not one of my bigger problems with the movie, honestly; while we need to have more movies depicting accurate representations of mental illness . . . I don’t know. I just can’t get worked up over it in this particular instance.
Still, this first Big Twist leads to a lot of internal logic flaws and inconsistencies. Like, there is very little discussion of how Dr. Alfred Molina’s
bullshit experimental drug therapy actually works (like, come on, guys, give me a couple of lines of exposition at least), nor am I clear when Malcolm started taking the drug, as his multiple personalities start to meet one another well before Malcolm himself arrives at the hearing. (Especially the ones who are already married to each other, like how does that work exactly?) Malcolm also doesn’t seem to have his own personality (like, one named Malcolm Rivers), which seems . . . odd.
And what’s worse is this: for Malcolm to avoid lethal injection, his various Good Personalities must kill his Evil Serial Killer Personality. Usually, stories like this are trying to prove that the defendant or convicted can’t be held accountable for his actions based on the fact that he’s — technical term here — nuts; here, however, everyone seems to be on board with the idea that Malcolm is seriously mentally ill (or they quickly get on board, once they actually see him), but they’re still totes cool with executing him anyway. It’s only when the Evil Serial Killer Personality is eliminated (supposedly) that his execution is cancelled, and Malcolm’s allowed to live at a mental hospital where he clearly belongs.
My other problem with this whole Everyone Is A Split Personality thing? It’s kind of boring. Not because it’s been done to death, but because . . . well, who cares, right? I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but generally I find that stories which take place near-entirely in someone else’s head are not really my thing. It’s kind of like the whole unreliable narrators deal. I don’t hate them on principle, but 97% of the time I think they’re a cheat.
What actually could have been interesting is this: don’t make the multiple personalities a Big Twist. Reveal it from the beginning. Make Identity an actual story about identity — like what qualifies a person as a person? Is it personality? Memory? These characters possess those things, even if they’re imagined. Is it really ethical to pit these personalities against each other without their understanding? Don’t they want to live? Do they deserve to? And do we, as audience members, want to see the original personality restored, or are we just voting for our favorite personality to survive?
In this case, the only Big Twist would be the identity of the Evil Serial Killer. It could be pretty much anyone. Except, of course, who it turns out to be in Identity.
3. Let’s make a pact, you and I. Let’s agree right now that we will have no more Evil Kid Stories.
I actually don’t hate Creepy Kid stories. I get the appeal of the Creepy Kid, and there are plenty that I really like (Carol Anne from Poltergeist, the Red Queen from Resident Evil, Claudia from Interview with the Vampire, Cole in The Sixth Sense, etc.) but straight up Evil Kid is kind of dull and practically expected at this point anyway. It doesn’t make for a great twist, especially not when he’s so damn obvious about it. I mean, his name is Timmy, for Christ’s sake. Why didn’t they just name him Look-How-Innocent-I-Am McGee, or something?
Timmy’s MO also makes his identity pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention. He is, after all, the indirect cause of both his mother and stepfather getting run over by cars. Two different cars, even: he tricks his mother, Alice (Leila Kenzle), into stepping out into the middle of the road, where Ex-Cop and Worst-Limo-Driver-Ever Ed (John Cusack) immediately slams into her, and he tricks his stepfather, George (John C. McGinley), into pushing him out of the way before Larry (John Hawkes) can accidentally run over him with his truck. I’d like to point out that Evil Timmy is putting a lot of faith in George’s reflexes, not to mention appears to have supernatural knowledge that Ed won’t be looking at the road at this precise moment, despite the fact that it’s raining and looking at the road is a huge part of his entire fucking job.
George dies instantly, whereas Alice survives long enough for Evil Timmy to smother her with a pillow. And this is where Timmy’s true nature becomes hideously apparent, even though it’s about another thirty minutes before the movie actually reveals it. See, at this point in the movie, all the survivors are holed up in one hotel room with the hope that if they all stay in line of sight of each other until morning, no one else will die. The only person who isn’t in the same room is Alice; she’s in the adjoining room, trying not to die from her injuries. The only person allowed to leave the main room to go into the adjoining room is Timmy. When Alice ends up murdered (which we know because of the motel key countdown), you’d think it’d be pretty clear who killed her. Well, apparently, it’s not. Because everyone in this movie is an idiot.
4. This movie has a pretty huge cast. Let’s talk about them.
I enjoy John Cusack, but I’ve found that outside of a specific niche, I can’t always take him very seriously. Like Grosse Point Blank is one of my favorite movies ever and I think he’s terrific in it, but I don’t always buy him in roles like this, specifically any kind of law enforcement roles. (Although this is clearly six steps above playing Edgar Allan Poe. Man, was that a bad call.) Cusack isn’t terrible and I do enjoy a few of his reactions, like when he’s listening to Larry and clearly wondering, “How is this my life?” Still, I feel like this movie might be (minimally) improved if it was anchored by a stronger lead.
I haven’t seen much from Amanda Peet in a while, but she’s probably one of the stronger actors in this cast, despite a silly and unfortunate “What Are You Waiting For” moment. (Well, only partially unfortunate. I did, after all, enjoy the line about oranges.) Peet has decent reactions — I certainly buy her freak outs — and I generally like her character well enough. My only problem with Paris is how obvious it is that she’s going to be the Final Girl.
If you’ll pardon the digression — one of my problems with the movie (and so many other movies like it) is that there are ten players in this story, and we all know who’s going to make it out alive. There are really only a few ways it could play out:
A. Paris, Ed, and Timmy survive. (Assuming Timmy wasn’t evil.)
B. Paris and Timmy survive. (Assuming Timmy wasn’t evil.)
C. Paris survives alone. (Assuming Timmy IS evil.)
D. Paris survives alone . . . until she doesn’t. (Also assuming that Timmy is evil.)
And that’s about it. Admittedly, Paris isn’t your momma’s Final Girl because Paris is a hooker, but she still clearly is a Final Girl. (And anyway, she’s getting out of hooking now, which means she’s worthwhile by Movie Standards. If her goal was to continue being a prostitute, well, that would almost certainly be a different story.) Her survival was never really in question — the only concern was whether she’d die in One Last Big Twist or not. (Spoilers: she does.) The same cannot be said for, say, Ginny (Clea DuVall), Larry (John Hawkes), or any of the others who were clearly never going to make it. For once, it’d be nice to be surprised not just by the identity of a killer but by who survives the onslaught.
I think this is the first thing I ever saw John Hawkes in, and he’s kind of great. Not because his role is particularly well-developed or because he’s a hugely likable character (his funny moments are somewhat offset by his super hostile reaction to prostitutes), but because Hawkes is just that good. He has a ton of energy and brings such life to his character that I was actually rooting for him, despite the fact that’s he’s sort of a hateable dick. Definitely a scene stealer.
I can only assume that at the time of filming, John C. McGinley desperately wanted to play someone who was the opposite of his character on Scrubs. George certainly fits the bill: he’s an extremely timid guy who’s not particularly great in a crisis and spends a good chunk of the movie panicking or repeating step-by-step instructions to himself, whether those instructions are about what to do when you get a flat or what to do when a speeding car careens straight into your wife. Frankly, I’m a little surprised he’s not asthmatic to boot. I do actually kind of like George (I sort of adore the bewildered delivery of “What is going on here?”), but he doesn’t really have a whole lot to do before he gets killed himself.
Of course that’s still more than Leila Kenzle gets. Alice smiles at her kid, stupidly steps into a road, gets hit by a car, and spends most of her screen time unconscious until she’s rather abruptly dead.
Rebecca De Mornay isn’t in this movie for all that long — she’s the first to go, since Alice doesn’t technically die for another hour — but I like her here. De Mornay plays a stereotypical, self-obsessed actress who appears to be fading into obscurity, and I actually wished she lived a little longer. She’s a terrible person, no doubt, but she brings a bit of humor to the story, or does, until she gets her head chopped off by a seven year old.
Okay, there are too many people here and too much left to talk about. I’m just going to start doubling up. Ray Liotta seems like pretty solid casting to me because he mostly seems to play asshole cops and criminals anyway, and while we don’t trust Rhodes (certainly not after seeing the hidden blood on the back of his shirt), we might not make the immediately leap to escaped killer. Maybe he’s just a corrupt cop — not exactly out of Liotta’s wheelhouse. Anyway, I like the actor in this; he conveys frustration and incredulity quite nicely. His plan to keep everyone in the same room is very solid.
Jake Busey, meanwhile, is mostly there to be a creepy red herring, which he excels at because he’s Jake Busey. It’s not just because he looks a lot like his dad, either — I doubt I’ll ever see Busey in anything and not immediately think of Johnny Bartlett.
Finally, William Lee Scott and Clea DuVall play young, annoying newlyweds, and it’s hard to decide which one is more infuriating. Scott’s character, Lou, is certainly a winner — past history of cheating, general lack of sensitivity, temper problems that suggest he has been or is likely to become abusive, etc. None of this is helped by Scott’s overacting, which is reminiscent of his performance in Nine Dead.
Ginny, meanwhile, appears to exist solely to make stupid decisions, like that time she argues that they need to leave the motel, despite the fact that there is absolutely nowhere to go. Or how she storms off to her own motel room to pack because she’ll definitely be safer by herself while there’s a serial killer on the loose.
Her terrible decisions are not limited to the current situation either; apparently, she lied about her pregnancy in order to get Lou to marry her. This horrible life choice was made after she heard that he cheated on her with some other girl and mostly proves that Ginny is no more skilled at the long game than she is at making short term plans for survival. Cause, Gin, you do realize that while Lou might marry you for the baby (and that’s a pretty big ‘might’ in today’s culture), he’s certainly not going to stop cheating on you just because you’re hitched. Still, I’m sure this is a decision you won’t regret for the rest of your life. (However short that may happen to be.)
5. Now that I think about it, though, Ginny isn’t just hanging around to make poor life choices. She’s also there to Feel Things. There always has to be a character with Heart Knowledge, and in Identity, that character is Ginny. Case in point: Ginny, apropos of absolutely nothing that’s going on, suddenly says, “Remember that movie where the ten strangers went to an island and they all died one by one, and then it turned out they weren’t strangers, that they all had a connection?”
Larry, currently tied up and suspected of multiple homicide, does remember that movie, so he helpfully adds, “They all messed with the same guy, and he was getting revenge.” Rhodes doesn’t want to hear anything Larry has to say, but Ginny insists, “I’m just saying maybe there’s some connection between all of us.”
There are a few problems here. First and obviously most important is that I think Ginny and Larry are mixing up movie trivia. Presumably, they’re referring to And Then There Were None, unless there’s some other movie where ten strangers go to an island and get killed off one by one. (And if there is, someone please tell me so I can go watch it immediately.) And admittedly, I haven’t seen the entire film, but unless the filmmakers changed a great deal more than I’d assumed, the ten strangers aren’t actually connected. The bad guy certainly isn’t out for revenge. Instead, he’s punishing them for their individual instances of getting away with murder. He’s like a vigilante, but more sadistic and with less colorful outfits.
The other problem, of course, is that there’s really no reason for the characters to suspect they’re all connected at this point, even though they are. The writers want to introduce that idea, but apparently they couldn’t think of any better way to do that than having Ginny break the silence by bringing up incorrect movie trivia. Fail, writers. This is a fail.
6. Ooh, and let’s not forget the time when Ginny randomly tries to blame everything that’s happening on the fact that the motel is supposedly built on an old Indian burial ground, which is such a bullshit red herring, I can’t even deal with it.
We also have the problem of the disappearing bodies.
See, Ginny and Timmy die (well, Ginny dies, anyway) when their car blows up. (Little Timmy has been very industrious about the murders so far, up to and including shoving a baseball bat down Jake Busey’s throat. I’m not even sure he’s tall enough to do that, so I’ll assume he found a chair or something to stand on.) But when the others look for survivors, there are no remains. In fact, suddenly all of the other dead bodies have disappeared too. This is a little something I like to call ‘bullshit.’
Of course, none of the bodies are strictly speaking real, so they can technically go poof whenever the hell they want, but I object to the inconsistency. When Rhodes later shoots Larry, his body doesn’t vanish, and the same is true when Rhodes and Ed shoot each other. There is no valid story reason why the bodies would magically disappear at this point in the story; the only actual reason they do so is to divert suspicion from the fact that the car does not, in fact, contain the ashy/melty pieces of Timmy’s body, because Timmy, of course, isn’t actually dead. That’s lazy damn writing, IMO.
7. And about Ed and Rhodes shooting each other —
— well, first let me back up a second. Okay, so in the past, Ed quit the force after a traumatic incident with a jumper left him struggling with depression and mysterious blackouts. He has one of those blackouts at the motel and ends up in Malcolm’s hearing, where he gets the unfortunate existential blow that he’s not a real person and this whole horror scenario he’s been living is actually just a diabolical scheme to root out a serial killer by handing him victims on a platter and saying, “Chow down, buddy.” Ed has about two minutes to freak out, digest, and ultimately make peace with that before he’s back at the motel.
Meanwhile, Paris has discovered that Rhodes is a fugitive and that he killed the cop he’s currently pretending to be. Rhodes kills Larry and nearly kills Paris too; luckily, she escapes, and Ed strolls in with one plan: kill the killer. Guy doesn’t even try to defend himself, either, presumably deciding that his existence doesn’t matter since he’s imaginary anyway. (I forgot to mention earlier that Ed owns a copy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Writers, you’re a bunch of assholes.) Ed and Rhodes fatally shoot each other, Paris fucks off to grow oranges, and everything is hunky dory until it’s revealed that Evil Timmy never died in the first place.
But according to IMDb trivia, the filmmakers removed a crucial bit of sound from that shoot-out scene. Supposedly, as he’s dying, Rhodes whispers, “I didn’t do this,” and Ed responds, “I know.” I’ve since gone back and watched, and though it’s hard to tell with the lighting, it does look like that’s what they’re saying to each other. What’s particularly interesting about this is that, apparently, the dialogue was muted because the director thought it would ruin the twist that Evil Timmy was alive. (I still maintain that twist was ruined a good half hour earlier, but whatever.) Whereas I would assume they muted the sound on that scene because that dialogue makes no fucking sense. It’s one thing for Ed to stroll up and shoot Rhodes because killing him will save Paris and leave her alone and safe in Malcolm’s body, but if Ed knows that Rhodes isn’t the killer . . . well, The Killer, anyway . . . why the hell would he do it?
8. For a movie that I kinda like, I’m well aware that I haven’t said anything terribly positive in the past few thousand words. And honestly, I don’t have a lot of arguments in its favor, either, other than the fact that it has potential and I take a certain amount of so-bad-its-good satisfaction from its cheesiness. But there are some genuinely good scenes in this movie. I generally enjoy the pause-flashback structure (until they mostly abandon it), and the scene where we see that nearly everyone has some kind of secret is pretty well-done.
In particular, I think the twist about Rhodes is fairly well-handled. There’s support for it throughout the movie (like Rhodes about to touch evidence with his bare hands before Ed stops him), but I don’t think it’s immediately obvious from the outset. Or that Larry found the last motel owner dead and took over his business without telling anybody. I like that most of the players have secrets (although I kind of wish Paris’s money played into the mystery somehow).
9. I don’t think Malcolm deserved to be executed, but it is true that he has a lot of pretty shitty personalities. Little Timmy is The Killer, but Rhodes and Jake Busey (I’ve come too far to look up his character’s name now) are killers too, if not quite so enthusiastic and prolific about it. Ginny, Lou, and Washed Up Actress Caroline aren’t killers, but they’re unlikely to win any Awesome Human Being awards. And Larry totally kills George — sure, it was an accident that Timmy helped instigate, but Larry is still absolutely at fault for his shitty driving, just like Ed’s at fault for running down Alice. Timmy influencing her to step back into the road wouldn’t have meant shit if Ed was actually looking where he was going. I think we should all acknowledge that.
That leaves Alice, George, and Paris as Malcolm’s best personalities — and even Paris is a bit of a stretch, since I’m pretty sure she steals all the money from her john in the beginning. (The fact that he seemed obnoxious is probably not a morally sound enough reason to rob him, sadly.)
And if you’re wondering why Malcolm Rivers is so fucked up, well, it’s because of one reason: his mommy was a ho.
Honestly. One of these days, we’re going to have a story where Prostitute Mommy isn’t the root of all that’s evil. I feel like that you don’t get a lot of happy Prostitute Mommy stories. Some happy Stripper Mommy stories, maybe, but once you have a kid, you better not be screwing people for cash, or else you’re gonna be raising a serial killer. For that matter, Mek brought up another idea: why don’t we have more Prostitute Daddy stories? Let’s equal opportunity this shit.
10. Finally, I’m just lumping in some random notes together to keep this at even 10.
10A. While I’m on the subject of prostitutes, how exactly does Larry take one look at Paris and know she’s a hooker, anyway? I mean, it’s really one glance and it’s all over. Her clothes aren’t conservative, sure, but I don’t know if they’re that trashy, and even if they were, does Larry automatically assume that every girl in a short skirt charges people for sex? Cause if that’s the case, I assume Larry gets his nose broken a lot.
10B. Evil Timmy may be a creative killer, but Malcolm Rivers is apparently not a terribly imaginative man. All his personalities have the same birthday and geography-related names? Please. And don’t even get me started on Lou Isiana. That is the dumbest name in all of existence. Writers, I continue to be ashamed of you.
10C. Amusingly, IMDb trivia tells us that in the first script, the killer was originally an expat female teacher from Australia. This was changed because there was concern that a lady teacher serial killer would outrage parent groups — because I can really see how those same groups would be a-okay with a child serial killer instead.
10D. We all make certain decisions we’re not proud of in real life, the kind of thing we’d yell at people for doing in horror movies. Hell, I walk around by myself in a hospital basement in the middle of the night for my job; at some point, I need to face the fact that a masked serial killer is probably going to rise from the dead and murder me. Still, there are things that I’m pretty sure I’d never do and never would have done, even when I was a dumb teenager and prone to worse horror movie mistakes.
For instance: NEVER investigate laundry rooms in the middle of the night by yourself. This is asking for death. But even if I (stupidly) did do that, I honestly don’t think it would occur to me to open all the dryers, even if I thought something unusual — like, say, a human head — was rattling around in there. (Cusack’s lack of reaction here is just wrong. I don’t care if he used to be a cop. You find a decapitated head where you’re supposed to find socks, and the only possible proper response is to scream or, at the very least, yelp and back away.)
Also, if you’re going to open those dryers, you should at least restart the ones without human heads in them. Come on, man. That’s just common decency.
10E. Finally, you know what else I wouldn’t do? Play prison guard to a serial killer. Nope, not even if a cop or ex-cop asked me to. Not. Happening.
Ed’s response to Larry’s deeply legitimate concerns about such a task is this: “He’s unconscious, Larry. He’s tied to a post.” Presumably we’re supposed to think this is a valid argument, which, it’s totally not. If I was Larry, I’d be like, “Fuck you, buddy. You could have this guy blindfolded and hog-tied for all I care; I run a fucking one-star motel and will not be doing any guard duty on my own. Not to mention, the guy isn’t likely to be unconscious forever, and he got away the last time someone tied him to something, didn’t he? No, you go ahead and play police officer, buddy. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be drinking tequila and watching Wheel of Fortune, thanks.”
If only characters would speak sensibly. If only.
Rhodes: “All right. You want a plan? Everybody want a plan? Here’s the plan, okay? No one’s gonna move. We’re gonna stay here, like this, in this room until dawn. No one leaves, no one moves. And if he tries anything, I’m gonna shoot him! And if there’s something out there and it comes in here, I’m gonna shoot it! And if anyone of us tries anything, I’m gonna shoot ’em!”
Rhodes: “You got a name?
Rhodes: “Paris, huh? Never been.”
Rhodes: “Well, you ain’t going tonight.”
Caroline: “Listen, I understand the bleeding person has a medical condition, okay? But so do I! My lung walls have . . . depleted cilia. If I stay here, I could asphyxiate!”
Larry: “I was scared — ”
Ed: “Why were you scared?”
Larry: “I thought you wouldn’t understand — ”
Ed: “No, no, no, I’m capable of understanding.”
Larry: “I’m not a murderer, godammit!”
Rhodes: “There’s a dead body in your freezer, Larry!”
Yeah, this one has a lot of problems. I enjoy because I just do, but I couldn’t really in good conscience recommend it to anyone.
Hm. You don’t have to be legally sane to be executed anymore? Or how about the one I’ve learned from virtually every time I’ve played Betrayal at House on the Hill: the killer is always, always the little kid.