"Identity" is supposed to be a psychological thriller with a shocking twist, so I'll try to not give much away in this review. But I don't know why I should bother since the film is carpeted wall-to-wall with such blatant clues that even before the opening title sequence draws to a close, it's put all its cards on the table.
In that sequence, a legal-defense shrink pours over a montage of newspaper clippings and police files about a schizophrenic serial killer who may have witnessed his parents' murder as a child. The killer is scheduled for execution the next day, and the doc (Alfred Molina) is working on an 11th-hour appeal.
Director James Mangold ("Kate & Leopold, " "Girl Interrupted") cuts back to this story from time to time as a midnight sanity hearing is held for the heavily drugged convict. But for reasons I won't divulge here, 95 percent of the picture takes place at a remote Nevada strip motel where 10 strangers (including a washed-up actress, bickering newlyweds and a family that had been in a bad car accident) have been stranded by a flash-flood rainstorm -- and one by one they're turning up gruesomely slain.
The usual horror-movie countdown of characters, pretty much in reverse order of the actors' billing, takes on an ominous tone when those that aren't dead yet realize that 1) they're getting whacked in another reverse order -- by room number (10, 9, 8, etc.) -- and 2) they all share a bizarre connection that can be no coincidence.
John Cusack, playing a limo driver who had been a policeman until he went off the deep end and retired on a psychiatric pension, tries to take charge of the situation. But that doesn't sit well with another, suspiciously incompetent cop (Ray Liotta), who is trapped at the motel with a prisoner he's transporting (the menacingly nutty Jake Busey). Said prisoner gets away more than once and becomes the prime suspect for the massacre -- until he's found with a baseball bat shoved down his throat.
Meanwhile, a hooker (Amanda Peet) tries to keep everyone else calm, especially a disturbed little boy (Brett Loehr) who never speaks a word, even before his mother and father (Leila Kenzle and John C. McGinley) become victims of whatever is happening at this increasingly eerie inn.
Although "Identity" boasts a talented cast that fleshes out its characters to an uncommon degree for what is ostensibly just a fancy slasher flick, screenwriter Michael Cooney (scribe of the "Jack Frost" cult-horror pictures) lifts the motel part of the plot almost wholesale from Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians." Plus, he rarely departs from one formula (the group keeps splitting up, making for easy pickings) or another (even the ending is standard horror movie fare), except to unveil the supposed Big Surprise -- which, as I said, is no surprise at all.
Even if you were to walk in late and miss that dead-giveaway title sequence, "Identity" serves up sloppy hints in scene after scene after scene. Two characters look too much alike to be a coincidence. One of them keeps disappearing from rooms and reappearing in others in a way that's supposed to go unnoticed by the players and the audience, but it happens too many times to ignore. The connection the characters share (which has been trumpeted in the trailers and TV spots) is a transparent tip-off.
The very existence of the storyline about the inmate's hearing, incongruous as it seems at first, arouses suspicion -- and the narrative points Mangold chooses for cutting to and from that subplot are about as subtle as the motel's neon sign.
Once the connection between the two stories is revealed, it becomes clear that "Identity" is based on a fascinating, creatively abstract concept. But in making that concept accessible, the film becomes contrived -- a literal manifestation in B-movie fiction of something that should have been more elusive and cerebral -- and the circumstances of the plot become way too convenient.
Still, the movie's plethora of plot-twist pointers didn't have to be so conspicuous. Mangold seems to think he has a couple "Sixth Sense"-sized shocks waiting for moviegoers in the picture's last two reels. But even with all kinds of stylish cinematic misdirection (like freeze-frames coupled with the reverse chronology of some early events), "Identity" isn't half as cunning as the filmmakers think it is.