All scary movie motels constantly aspire toward the condition of the establishment run by Norman Bates in ”Psycho,” and the setting of the ornately built psychological thriller Identity is no exception. The isolated, rundown lodging where a group of storm-stalled travelers gathers features a forlorn neon sign swinging in the wind, dead phone lines, and a manager (John Hawkes) so skittish that even Norman would have found him a little creepy. The soaked strangers forced to take shelter from flooded roads and assorted personal traumas, meanwhile, are an odd lot out of an Agatha Christie mystery: These 10 little Indians include a limo driver (John Cusack) chauffeuring a fading actress (Rebecca De Mornay), a cop (Ray Liotta) transporting a convicted killer (Jake Busey), a couple of high-strung, spur-of-the-moment newlyweds (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott), and a call girl (Amanda Peet) fleeing her seedy Las Vegas life. Each is trying to run from something; all are not what they seem. And all turn out to have a lot to worry about when they come in out of the rain, because one by one they start to die in the most fancifully gruesome ways.
Actually, that’s just part of the story. And although director James Mangold (”Cop Land”) and screenwriter Michael Cooney (”Jack Frost”) offer clues to the secret of ”Identity”’s thriller puzzle all along, the likelihood – and certainly the plan – is that those clues will be missed. Which is at once the movie’s accomplishment and its failing, in a post-”Memento” and ”Sixth Sense” world. Delighting in his own considerable cleverness and cineast’s knowledge of movie history, Mangold shuffles the elements like a three-card-monte pro. There are creaking-door sound effects, over-the-shoulder mirror shots, menacing pointy objects photographed from vertiginous angles, and Alan Silvestri’s be-scared-now score. There’s one scene in which a woman screams in a bathroom while someone violently bangs and rattles the door and the camera pulls in close on the flimsy lock as it begins to give way. There’s another in which the sight and sound of a whirring, unattended clothes dryer – surely one of the industrial revolution’s most useful horror props – is a pleasant cause for dread. Always, there’s rain by the bucketful – so much so that the well-prepared moviegoer may want to pack the newspaper and water pistol usually used for audience participation in ”The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
And still, even as I could admire the story’s twistiness and catalog its influences, I was stuck with a who-cares-who-killed-Roger-Ackroyd problem that dulled my excitement before the pieces fell into place: Until ”Identity” allows the audience to make sense of what we’ve been watching in a big moment of aha!, there’s nothing to do but sit through scares and deaths that matter little in a game whose rules aren’t being explained for arbitrary reasons. With dialogue the least of the movie’s strengths (front-desk guy to aging star: ”Didn’t you used to be that actress?”; cop and chauffeur at various times to everybody else: ”Just stay here!”), the characters accrue without generating interest. Cusack’s melancholy, suspiciously emergency-competent driver sizes up Liotta’s angry, suspiciously emergency-incompetent cop; Hawkes’ weaselly, untrustworthy manager reacts with excessive distaste to the sight of Peet’s hungry and secretive call girl. Why? No answer – not until the storyteller is good and ready. There are no people here, only devices, homages, paraphrases, and structural building blocks.
Don’t tell that, though, to the actors, undoubtedly cast (by a director who loves the look of motels, rain, and over-the-shoulder mirror shots) to play their most familiar character types. At this point, Busey can mimic a bad guy with his teeth alone, and Peet can convey a hard and grimy sexuality with the arch of an eyebrow, yet the two throw themselves into their latest iterations with a surfeit of energy I’ve got to respect if only because of how much time they had to spend getting drenched for their art. DuVall shrieks effectively, not breaking concentration even when her character has to squeak something about how all the deaths may be linked to spirits protecting the Indian burial ground on which the motel stands. After his invigorating turn in ”Narc,” Liotta has little to do here besides flash sparks of temper (his police identity is clearly fishy from the start), but having worked with Mangold before on ”Cop Land,” Liotta at least flares right on cue.
The hardest work falls to Cusack, a subtle actor with a valuable gift for conveying the sadness and loneliness beneath the skin of even the most jaded and self-contained men-about-town. His character has the longest stretch of mystery highway to travel, and Cusack is required to deliver the audience from one end of the movie’s secrets to the other. That he gets us there is an instance of good driving through stormy weather on a tricky road to nowhere.