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It was a dark and stormy night... 

As the numerous contemporary adaptations of Agatha Christie's works demonstrate, cinematic translations of the classic detective novel must employ a certain amount of extraneous material to succeed on the big screen. These include a cast of recognizable stars in small roles, period costumes and music, dazzling sets, a glittering sense of style, and, frequently, a measure of ironic exaggeration.

            The intellectual basis of the traditional mystery story --- the baffling puzzle, the close examination of minutiae, the games of logic and obfuscation, the cerebral methodology of the Great Detective --- generally lose their appeal in the necessary magnification of the big screen, which tends to amplify the actions, people, and objects of an essentially quiet and placid literary form. No wonder the most memorable detective movies either adapt or imitate the American private-eye novel, which emphasizes character, scene, and violent action over the ingenious problem-solving of the English form.

            The new thriller Identity deals with the inherent difficulties of the cinematic mystery by filtering its puzzle through the medium of the horror flick and what might be called the psychological thriller. Like Christie's remarkable Ten Little Indians, which enjoyed four separate film adaptations, Identity sequesters a group of disparate characters in an isolated location, then proceeds to knock them off one by one.

            Ultimately, all of the characters turn out to be both murderers and victims. Instead of the island of Christie's book, or the snowbound resort hotels, country houses, railroad cars, gentlemen's clubs, rural vicarages, etc. of other mysteries, Identity takes place in a sleazy motel, one of the Bates chain, on an impossibly rainy night in Nowhere, Nevada.

            The movie's 10 assorted characters duplicate the ill-assorted collection of the traditional mystery. Among them is a temperamental actress (Rebecca DeMornay), her limo driver (John Cusack), a hooker (Amanda Peet), and a cop (Ray Liotta) transporting a prisoner (Jake Busey). The script cleverly introduces them, along with two young newlyweds, a married couple with a child, and the motel manager, through some intricate flashbacks within flashbacks, showing a kind of fatal coincidence linking them all.

            Peet's lost shoe punctures a tire, which leads to an automobile accident that seriously injures a woman, and in turn makes Cusack attempt to drive through a flooded gully and stall his car, which forces him to flag down another vehicle and thus encounter Peet and the newlyweds, and so forth --- ultimately compelling him and the rest of the people to seek refuge in the motel. The movie resumes a more orthodox, linear narrative as soon as the whole cast is assembled and someone starts murdering them; which, of course, generates both puzzlement and panic among the steadily diminishing group of survivors.

            Quite properly, just about every character conceals some dark secret, and several turn out to be a good deal more sinister than they initially seem --- thus, of course, creating the possibility that any of them might be the murderer. The process of inculpation, further, suggests something of the universality of guilt: Even the victims, in one way or another, are criminals, and nobody is entirely innocent.

            The limo driver, for example, carries a pistol and exhibits a surprising surgical skill; the cop brutalizes his prisoner (who soon escapes); the young wife has tricked her husband into marrying her; and the motel manager, who betrays an inexplicable hostility toward the hooker, keeps a corpse in the freezer.

            As the rain pours down and the bodies accumulate, the surviving characters desperately attempt to figure out what, besides fate, brings them all to that dreary, dangerous place, what common element connects them all. Just as they begin to realize the connection, and thus discover a solution to all the mysteries, the bodies simply disappear and the picture moves in a new direction, circling back to its deceptive beginning. Even after resolving the plot in a neat, logical manner, the script then winds through some additional and quite ingenious convolutions, providing further surprises and new conclusions.

            The ensemble cast displays just the sort of differentiation the situation demands, so that each can simultaneously attain a measure of individuality and suggest some hidden guilt. Cusack and Liotta, the two strongest actors in the picture, quite naturally dominate the action, managing to make us want to believe in them, but also hinting at the possibility that neither should really be trusted. The duality of their characters perfectly suits the ambiguity of the film and the essentially implosive nature of its puzzle.

            In the midst of its terror and shock, by means of its controlled location, intense script, and clever direction, Identity creates a most complicated and satisfying mystery, a rare success in a tricky and delicate form.

Identity, starring John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall, John C. McGinley, William Lee Scott, Jake Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rebecca DeMornay; written by Michael Cooney; directed by James Mangold. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.


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