Identity (2003)

Directed by James Mangold

When the movie The Sixth Sense came out a few years ago and became such a huge success it regenerated two types of stories (often mixed, as was the The Sixth Sense): the suspense film and the ghost film. In trying to recreate its success, one of the focuses was on the ending-with-a-twist device.

Some, like The Others, were successful to varying degrees; many were not (and we’ve already forgotten those).

What many of those that failed didn’t appear to realize was that The Sixth Sense worked because it was so well executed – it was anchored in a very tightly written story and shot/edited with tremendous skill. It was primarily the story that made it work, however, and those that failed generally failed because this was the key element missing from them.

The movie Identity, a suspense thriller, is another film with a twist ending. It’s a movie that, while wildly different from Anger Management (a comedy), begins with a great concept (which I won’t reveal as it tells the ending). Unlike the comedy, it executes that concept brilliantly and works because of that execution. It’s largely well-thought out, well structured, performed, edited and so on.

Yet something about it doesn’t quite work for me.

The movie has harvested elements from all kinds of sources, notably the Agatha Christie book (made a movie), Ten Little Indians (the book now named And Then There Were None). There is a collection of people in a single location from which those characters cannot escape and each is murdered, one by one, though it’s impossible to say by whom.

But Identity takes a different tack in handling this which is both novel and fascinating (and can’t be revealed without giving it away). It’s a great mystery; a wonderful puzzle with clues dropped throughout the film and loads of misdirection to keep you wondering.

For me, however, there are two reasons why I’m reticent to give it an enthusiastic endorsement. The first is the film’s beginning. Despite being brilliantly done, wonderfully structured, the film (by necessity) begins by providing us with all kinds of information quickly in order to get the film’s engine going. But also part of this exposition is a bit of misdirection, notably the first murder (of the fading movie star). Given the mood the film establishes, and this first death, the movie appears to be a gauzy Hollywood slasher film (a bit of misdirection).

It’s very odd … While I was admiring how well this exposition was done, its rather ingenious cutting back and forth, I was bored. I think this is because while the movie is providing this exposition, the exposition it provides is superficial, at least in character terms. Given the type of story this is, ultimately a murder mystery, the characters are actually caricatures. As John Cusack mentions in the breezy feature on the making of the film, this is the type of story where characters are more like chess pieces for the screenwriter and director to move around. The puzzle, or mystery, is the main character. And until the mystery fully engages us, you feel distant and unengaged.

However, once the mystery has us hooked, the film plays out wonderfully. Its pace is quick without being chaotic and the story unfolds with a seeming logic we try vigorously to figure out.

And then we get to the ending, and the twist. It follows the films logic. It grows naturally out of all the information we’ve been given despite having misled us throughout. I’m not sure at what point I knew where the film was headed, but I think many viewers will start to sense the end somewhere toward the later stages of the film – though we’re not entirely sure until it happens.

But the twist ending itself has a twist ending and this is where I was a little disappointed. The twist end is revealed in about the third to last scene then, in the final two scenes we get a twist on that end. But it’s these last two scenes, this final twist, that bothers me. To me it seems as if the movie, which had been so brilliantly deceptive up to this point, taking us to logical places we didn’t anticipate, suddenly falls back on convention. This final twist is like the ending of a Twilight Zone episode, or the old Alfred Hitchcock TV show. In other words, it takes a kind of juvenile glee in having a nasty bite to its conclusion.

This is par for the course, if you want to be conventional. However, given that the film had been playing so well with the mystery genre, since so much of it relied on surprising us by going where we didn’t expect it to, I would have liked to see it be more innovative with its ending than the standard “final twist.” I’m not sure what that twist would have been, or if it could have been accomplished, but I’ve always found ends like this one, the conventional, to be like an anti-climatic punchline to an extremely well set up joke.

Still … The movie is, overall, a great mystery that will likely keep you engaged and guessing to the end – well, at least once it has grabbed you.

© 2003 Piddleville Inc.

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