As a horror film afficianado, I tend to be a bit wary when a mainstream director decides to tackle the genre because there is usually one of two results -- either we get either a stiff, bloodless exercise in good taste without the thrills a horror film requires, or worse, a "classy" (ie: condescending) attempt to elevate the genre by a filmmaker who doesn't understand it in the first place.
James Mangold's 'Identity' refreshingly managed to avoid both of these pitfalls. Released in 2003, at the tail of 'Scream' era resurgence that brought the slasher film back to prominence, Mangold's 'Identity' managed to combine a mainstream, refined sensibility without sacrificing what fans love about scary movies. I hate the term "thinking's man horror film," but that's exactly what 'Identity' is -- the writing, direction, acting and production values are all a cut above, and it even has a twist ending that M. Night Shyamalan would kill for.
Our story begins as convicted serial killer Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is given a last-minute stay the night before his execution. His therapist (Alfred Molina), hopeful to renew a failed insanity defense bid, begins a rigorous interview in order to glean fresh clues about the nature of his crimes. The memories unfold in flashback, where we meet a group of very disparate individuals, all of whom will converge on a seedy, rain-soaked hotel, with bloody results.
As we meet the characters, we recognize they are the kind of archetypes right out of pulp fiction novels and drive-in movies. Limo driver Ed (John Cusack) is taking spoiled movie star Caroline Suzanne (a virtually unrecognizable Rebecca DeMornay) back to Hollywood, when he unexpectedly collides with a harried dad (John C. McGinley) and his family. After the man's wife (Leila Kenzle) is seriously injured, the motel becomes their only means of refuge. But when a fierce thunderstorm comes out of nowhere, they're stuck with no phones, no way out and little hope of help arriving soon.
The plot thickens as more characters appear. Doesn't the motel owner (John Hawkes) seem a little bit off-kilter? And why is "former" escort Paris (Amanda Peet) so interested in Ed, who it is revealed, is also an ex-cop? And what secrets are newlyweds Ginny (Clea DuVall) and Lou (William Lee Scott) really hiding? The plot truly kicks into high gear when policeman Rhodes (Ray Liotta, in full-on creepy mode) arrives with a vicious prisoner (Jake Busey) in tow. As the bodies begin to pile up, the line between suspect and victim blurs, especially as each fresh kill comes with a matching motel room key -- who's leaving these grim clues, and why?
I wouldn't dream of revealing the secrets of 'Identity' in this review, of course, because the fun of a movie like this is trying to figure them out yourself. Perceptive viewers will begin searching for hints immediately, and there are many -- both subtle and obvious. I actually enjoyed watching 'Identity' more the second time, because I never realized just how intricately plotted the film really is. Mangold ('Copland,' 'Walk the Line') and screenwriter Michael Cooney have crafted a tight script, one without any real holes. What may seem like short-cuts, or outright cheats, actually make sense once the whole of the trick is revealed. Without spoiling anything, the connection between Rivers and these seemingly unrelated victims in the motel is a nifty, clever conceit. No it's not blazingly original, but if it works, it works.
Unfortunately, 'Identity' is not perfect. As a horror film, it doesn't really deliver. With the film's kills all seen off-screen, and no real "villain" in the Freddy Krueger mold - instead we are more tingled than terrorized. 'Identity' may be compelling and fun, but it is never really scary. Mangold and Cooney also can't help but resort to the time-honored, shopworn cliche of inserting one last, final shock, but the coda here quickly veers into camp. Still, 'Identity' remains a top-notch Hollywood thriller, with a great cast to match. And you'll certainly never look at a clothes dryer in a motel the same way again.
'Identity' comes to Blu-ray in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that looks terrific. The film has a rich visual palette that's flush with color. This is about as classy a slasher flick as you're gonna see.
As the film is only a few years old, the source is predictably perfect. Blacks are incredibly deep, with contrast excellent. Whites are crisp but not overdone, so the image has great depth without a loss in detail in the highlights. Color saturation is also very vivid, almost to the point of excessive but never stepping over the line. The image remains clean and free of noise, and never fails to entice with the strong primaries. Sharpness and detail are also first-rate, putting 'Identity' in the top tier of Blu-ray titles out there. My only nitpick is with a very minor bit of black crush that sometimes sees detail in the shadows obscured. But it's hard to complain about a transfer that looks this terrific.
When I first popped in the standard-def DVD version of 'Identity' upon its release back in February 2004, I was really quite blown away by how aggressive it sounded. Listening to this even-better Blu-ray version reminded me of just how immersive the home theater experience can be when a film has great sound design. 'Identity' gets cranked up to full-tilt Hitchcock mode from frame one, with enough crackling lightning and rumbling thunder for ten other horror films.
The rears are active almost throughout. There is nary a scene in 'Identity' where it is not raining, and the atmosphere is continuous and highly effective. This uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (at 48kHz/16-bit/4.6mpbs) delivers tremendous clarity to discrete sounds, which are both realistic and powerful. The 360-degree soundfield is heightened by great directionality of sounds, with seamless imaging. Dynamics are also first-rate, with powerful low bass and distinct dialogue reproduction. My only disappointment is that the film's score, though approprately subdued, would have been more effective had it not been so confined to the front soundstage. With all the discrete effects, it's odd that there is not more of a rear presence to the music. But no matter -- 'Identity' is a A-class soundtrack.
(As a side note, I think Sony that with this title Sony has set a record for the number of audio and subtitle options on a single Blu-ray disc. Just check out the list in the left sidebar of this review -- I guess all that extra space on BD-50 discs are finally being put to good use. Whew!)
Sony ports over the complete suite of extras that graced the standard-def DVD release to the Blu-ray, thanks to a nice and spacious BD-50 dual-layer disc. It's a nice package of supplements that holds up well.
Director James Mangold kicks things off with a screen-specific audio commentary. He gives smart (if somewhat dry) commentary, and I certainly admire his respect for the genre. However, I'm not sure that I agree with him on the depth that he ascribes to his characters, most of whom never transcended the archetypal to my eyes. Genuine production stories are also pretty rare (aside from a bit of info on the creation of the main motel location), as Mangold concentrates largely on balancing the complex plotting of the story, and how he attempted to ensure that the "twist" ending paid off.
The 13-minute ""Starz: On the Set" featurette (4:3 full screen 480i video only) is total fluff. Despite actually being interviewed on the set, none of the cast or crew really have much of interest to say about the film. Only plot recaps, how great everyone was to work with, how cool the movie is gonna be, blah blah blah. Entirely skippable.
Better are four Deleted Scenes, which get the full 1080p/MPEG-2 treatment. Mangold offers optional commentary, and his reasoning for cutting all of the sequences is familiar -- all are character moments that slowed the movie down. However, I liked all four scenes, and personally, I like more development in movies like this, even if the pace gets somewhat slowed. So fans should definitely give these a watch.
The last extra is a collection of three Storyboard Comparisons: "Lou's Demise," "George's Death" and "Rhodes' Backstory." Each sequence is presented with the original storyboard and dialogue on top, and the finished sequence on the bottom. Also a nice plus is that like the Deleted Scenes, these are also presented in 1080p/MPEG-2 video.
Oddly, there are no theatrical trailers at all on the disc, not even one for 'Identity.' Instead, all we get is Sony's now-standard "Coming to Blu-ray" promo, with clips from such upcoming releases as 'Spider-Man 2' and 'Charlie's Angels.'
'Identity' is a clever thriller -- a high-gloss slasher flick elevated by an all-star cast and intelligent direction. It doesn't completely subvert or transcend the genre, but it should appeal to people who don't consider themselves fans of this type of material. This Sony release is pretty great -- the transfer and soundtrack are up there with the absolute best I've seen on Blu-ray. And the extras are no slouches, either. If you like slasher movies, Hitchcockian thrillers or just a great twist ending, 'Identity' is well worth unlocking.