As I was going up the stairs
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.

Essentially a hybrid of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock,Identity is a contemporary reinvention of classic mystery/suspense thrillers aimed at today’s slasher flick-loving movie-goers. Shades of Psycho and a few creative touches were interweaved into the framework of Ten Little Indians to createIdentity, and the result is an engrossing thriller dripping with atmosphere that’s imbued with colourful characters and a handful of plot twists. Effectively finding the line between psychological thriller and slasher horror, Identity begins as a seemingly routine excursion into clichés before ultimately metamorphosing into something altogether unexpected and startling.

Identity‘s narrative takes place in two different basic locations. In a Judge’s chambers, a murderer (Taylor Vince) on the eve of his execution is being brought to a hearing by his legal defence when new evidence is brought to light that could potentially rescue him from death row. The main story thread, though, takes place on a dark, stormy night in the Nevada desert. With the roads flooded, a group of seemingly unrelated travellers are forced to check into an out-of-the-way motel. The clichéd group of strangers include limousine driver and former cop Ed (Cusack), the has-been actress that Ed is chauffeuring (De Mornay), a just-retired prostitute (Peet) headed to her Florida hometown to start over, an argumentative newlywed couple (DuVall, Lee Scott), a police officer (Liotta) transferring a dangerous convict (Busey), and a down-on-their-luck family consisting of sincere a sincere stepfather (McGinley), a critically injured mother (Kenzle) and their son (Loehr), not to mention the motel owner (Hawkes). As the weather worsens and the night drags on, the strangers begin getting killed one-by-one by a mysterious killer in what increasingly seems like a systematic fashion.

To further describe the story would spoil the surprises therein, which suffice it to say are best left unspoiled. Nothing equals the satisfaction of seeing this for the first time and being surprised by it.

Questions are raised throughout Identity. Is the motel situation a flashback to the events which got the murderer on death row? Are these two separate events happening concurrently? The uncertainty is all part of the skilful writing which throws buckets of red herrings at us. What’s also superlative about the writing is the way we’re compelled to guess about the whodunit aspect. Just when we become convinced that one person is the culprit, more red herrings are thrown in until the point when we are just about ready to give up. Reading the premise, you may believe you have Identity all figured out, or sigh with the feeling you’ve seen this all a thousand times before. Think again. For its first hour, Identity may be a B-grade slasher, albeit one orchestrated with A-grade technique, but then it completely defies expectation with a plot revelation that changes everything. However, this twist is not present for the mere hell of it – it has a true purpose for being. The twist transforms the film from what could’ve been a conventional high-gloss slasher into something deeper, richer and more existential in nature. All the apparent clichés are in fact just a set-up – they are more like a MacGuffin. The clichés seem to be the focus of the movie, but they are in truth a distraction from the filmmaker’s true agenda.

In theory, the idea of shooting the majority of a film on a conventional dark and stormy night is the kiss of death, but director James Mangold is a skilled craftsman capable of sustaining tension and atmosphere; bringing the somewhat unremarkable script to life with transfixing technique. Identity is not an overly frightening or gory movie – it is more of a Hitchcockian thriller. The stormy night-time setting lends the film an appropriate noir tone, accentuating the uncertainty of what is right around the corner. Mangold does deploy such clichés as jump scares with regularity, yet the director executed these moments with a sense of style and panache; showing that old devices can still work if done effectively. It also helps that Mangold was aided by the sumptuously moody cinematography by Phedon Papamichael which expertly uses shadows and pouring rain for maximum effect, in addition to the well-judged editing by David Brenner which keeps the pacing tight. If there’s a flaw with Identity, it’s that the dialogue is not always solid, and there are moments of sheer silliness which simply don’t sit right.

Each member of the cast had minimal material to work with since they were playing a genre type without much psychological background. Nevertheless, the top-notch assemblage of acting talent makes each character feel real and unique, which is crucial to the narrative’s ultimate destination. John Cusack has always been an amiable screen presence who specialises in laidback, everyman kind of roles, and his portrayal of Ed makes for an engaging protagonist. Usually in genre films of this type, the female protagonist is on hand to run and scream, but Amanda Peet develops her role of a former prostitute into something far more than a helpless heroine. The excellent Peet matches Cusack scene for scene. John C. McGinley was allotted a minor role, yet he’s fascinating and he brings a wonderful, believable energy to his character. McGinley has proved time and time again that he’s a superb character actor (Scrubs, anyone?), and Identity further reinforces this. Everyone else – especially the compelling Ray Liotta, the off-kilter John Hawkes, and bright young newcomer Bret Loehr – are terrific in their deliberately archetypal roles.

Ultimately, whether or not Identity will work for you entirely depends on how you perceive the third act. The twist may be seen as moronic by some, while others may be disappointed that the film does not go through with what is expected of a spooky whodunit slasher, and it will probably not be liked by those who don’t pay close attention and decide to predict everything out loud with utmost arrogance and cynicism. However, for those tired of the same old thing, Identity is a surprisingly challenging and rewarding genre flick; a true gem in a sea of bland, by-the-numbers psychological thrillers. The premise may seem overused, but the execution coupled with a few delicious twists makes this an absolute must-see.