ID, Please
Drenched desert despair
By Daniel Kraus

A rain-soaked John Cusack, and no boombox playing "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel? What a waste.

Sometimes people ask, "How can you sleep at night after saying The Blair Witch Project is superior to Schindler's List?" The answer is always the same: single-mindedness is to be treasured, with a preference for a straightforward, streamlined thriller any day over an opulent, over-ambitious epic that tries to save the world and pat its own back in the process. In other words, a film is a machine. And often, the simpler the machine, the better it runs.

Identity is a silly popcorn thriller that nearly perfectly achieves what it sets out to do. Instead of a "film," Identity is a "flick" in the juicy, old-fashioned sense; in the 1950s, you would have watched it at an outdoor drive-in. It wants to shock you, it wants to scare you, and it wants to make you laugh in disbelief. It wants you to shell out your hard-earned dollars, and will give you 90 minutes of showmanship in return.

The setup is savagely uncomplicated: Torrential rains have turned the Arizona desert into a swamp. Trapped by flooded roadways, 10 strangers find themselves ducking for cover at a seedy roadside motel. Among them are Edward (John Cusack), a limo driver for an aging starlet (Rebecca DeMornay); a cop (Ray Liotta) transporting a homicidal maniac (Jake Busey); and a gold-digging call girl (Amanda Peet) clutching a suitcase of cash.

Along for the fun is a family in crisis: a father and his son arrive carrying a bloody body-it's the man's wife, run over by Edward's limo. Of course, the phones are as useless as the roads, and Edward finds himself hand-stitching the woman's wounds with needle and thread. How did Edward learn this trick? Turns out, he has a few secrets. Then again, so does everyone else.

Then people start dying, and that's when the real fun-if you can stand calling it "fun"-begins. Identity is a weird, wild reworking of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, as the hapless boarders get knocked off like the proverbial 10 little Indians. This time, instead of wooden dolls representing the fallen heroes, it's room keys, apparently counting down from Room 10 to Room 1.

One of the great things about Identity is that it keeps changing genre-at any given point, it may be an ensemble drama, a supernatural thriller, or a gritty slasher flick. The only way a film can possibly pull off this hat trick is by allowing a certain amount of ridiculousness. Identity will incite in audiences as many nervous giggles as it does startled screams, and that's the surest sign of the movie's confidence-it's not afraid to go overboard. In fact, it relishes it and does so with gusto.

At the same time, it is a very spare movie, and only reveals its hand when absolutely necessary. There is almost no backstory given for any of the characters. Each is introduced quite suddenly, and details only leak out between moments of urgency and terror. "You a cop?" the call girl asks Edward sarcastically. "Used to be," he says, and the filmmakers leave it at that-a brief, enticing clue.

Like another claustrophobic classic, Night of The Living Dead, the characters act intelligently and do almost everything right-but they're doomed anyway. The acting is solid, but it's not really an actors' showcase. Cusack and crew seem to be along for the ride as much as we are; they are swept away with the story like the ever present on-screen flood. There's a blessed dearth of "get to know you" scenes. You know, the scenes where one character has a tender moment alone with another character and tells her about the day when his kitten died. Identity is too fast and clean for that kind of muddiness.

Identity knows that it is too much of a trifle to have the punch of a Silence of The Lambs, so to keep us on edge it uses every trick in the book-and even invents a few new ones. Like all great scare-fests, it sets up assumptions and introduces cliches, only to surprise you by taking the archetypes in new directions. The result is fast, scary, and gruesome, but you could still be smiling at the sheer inventiveness of it all.