With less than twenty-fours remaining before his client receives a lethal injection, a criminal psychiatrist and lawyer (Alfred Molina) stumbles across a personal diary that suggests his client suffers from multiple personality disorder.

The same can be said for “Identity,” a new thriller from director James Mangold and novice screenwriter Michael Cooney. The writer and director spend almost ninety minutes building up a wicked little horror thriller, and just when they have us trapped in their web, they literally toss their baby out with the bath water. Being clever is one thing, making up the rules as you go along is another, and both the writer and director break that cardinal rule.

It’s like the scene at the end of Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death,” where Truman Capote chides a room full of the world’s most famous mystery writers and sleuths for cheating their audience by introducing plot points and characters on the last page in order to come up with a surprise ending. No matter how much goodwill Mangold and Cooney develop during the first eighty-seven minutes, the last three minutes of “Identity” will leave you frustrated and disappointed.

As the psychiatrist/lawyer arranges for a midnight appeal of his client, we find ourselves stranded in the middle of the Nevada desert with a group of ten strangers, all mysteriously drawn to a drab, run-down motel during the middle of a nasty downpour. Everyone arrives with a secret and a desperate desire to be anywhere else but trapped within the confines of the motel, a creepy joint obviously built by the same architect as the Bates Motel in “Psycho.”

Behind the desk is Larry (John Hawkes), whose nightly dose of “The Wheel of Fortune” is interrupted when George (John C. McGinley) rushes in with his gravely wounded wife Alice (Leila Kenzle) and stepson Timmy (Bret Loehr). Close behind is limousine driver Ed (John Cusack) and his passenger, fading actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca DeMornay). They are joined by prostitute Paris (Amanda Peet), recently wed couple Ginny (Clea Duvall) and Lou (William Lee Scott), all seeking relief from the storm.

When Rhodes (Ray Liotta), a cop transporting mass murderer Robert Maine (Jake Busey) show up, things go from bad to worse as the guest list begins to quickly dwindle down, with each of the guests meeting gruesome fates. Someone is decapitated, another has a baseball bat shoved down their throat, another is crushed to death. As the body count grows, truths and revelations are revealed, and as one guest keenly observes, their situation starts to mirror Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians.”

Cooney has incorporated elements of Christie into his plot, and for most of the film, he manages to keep us glued to our seats. He makes the plot’s many coincidences work. Even when the major plot twist is revealed, director Mangold still manages to hold our interest, keeping us guessing how all of this will play out. It’s only during the final minutes that they lose us, conjuring up one final twist that doesn’t play fair. You feel sorry for the stars, who do an excellent job of helping the filmmakers create an inordinate amount of suspense and atmosphere, only to be betrayed by an illogical twist.

Cusack is the standout among the talented cast, a man forced to face his past demons as he tries to unravel the mystery, and Liotta has some deliciously dark moments as the cop with a hair- trigger temper and finger. Peet is sympathetic as the whore with a heart of gold in search of a better life, while DeMornay is appropriately touchy as a former TV star on her way back down the ladder of success.

Mangold and his production team have done a terrific job of creating an environment that is as cryptic as the characters who inhabit it. Every room comes with hot and cold running chills, and at a thrifty ninety minutes, “Identity” crackles with expedient plot exposition and character disposition. Chop off the last three minutes, and “Identity” wouldn’t suffer from an identity crisis.


Killer plot twists in schizophrenic horror thriller


John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Rebecca DeMornay, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, John C. McGinley, Clea DuVall, Jake Busey. Directed by James Mangold. Rated R. 90 Minutes.


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