"Hell is other people." ~Jean-Paul Sartre, 'No Exit'
Challenged by a dear friend to review the film Identity, I borrowed the movie from my father and watched it again. It was a film that I found quite enjoyable and more than a little unique when it was released in 2003, and was happy to devote the time to it again. It is another film, like many, on which my opinions seem to differ greatly from that of the "educated men" who call themselves 'Critics.'
When I was in college, my Film Production professor told us, you cannot say you have truly seen a film until you've watched at least four times. Once for the story (the acting and writing), once for the direction and editing, once for the construction (the sets, locations, lighting and costumes)....and then watch it again and see why your first impression was wrong. At first I laughed, thinking "seriously, who watches movies that many times?" Then I thought about Braveheart, Se7en, Interview with a Vampire, Brokeback Mountain, The Matrix, Edward Scissorhands, or Fight Club, movies I've watched at least three or four times, and I pondered "Why?"
Because they lure me back for each of those aspects, like savoring a wine year after year.
My general rule has become that if I enjoy a movie enough to watch it a second time, then it deserves that scrutiny. After all, how many hundred-plus people were involved in making that film? They all put hard work into it, so can I not at least take some time to admire their contributions as well...instead of sitting and jabbering until Brad Pitt's ass comes on screen? Yes, that deserves attention too...but the writer and director and lighting crew and costume designers, these people win awards because what they do matters too.
Identity is one of these movies. A movie that deserves a fourth run and your undivided attention.
If you do not like spoilers, haven't seen the movie or just don't feel like reading a REALLY LONG analysis of an excellent film...then read no further than this. It's a good movie, you should watch it. Now go away.
If you would like to know why Identity is likely Michael Cooney's best script to date, and an excellent example of James Mangold's incredible talents for direction and expressing stories of human turmoil....then keep reading.
"Everything which exists is born for no reason, carries on through weakness and dies by accident." - Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Being and Nothingness'
Do not believe Film Trailers. Film Trailers are designed to lie to you. They are promises from people who've not even seen the movie they are making promises about and 75% of the time they are way off the mark, especially in the case of excellent films. Watch the trailers for summer blockbuster, Jerry Bruckheimer masturbatory hit films. Those are usually about right...because there is little substance and it would be hard to BE wrong. Good films usually have very VAGUE trailers.
In general, you cannot sum up the intricasies that unfold over two hours in less than two minutes and expect it to have any kind of impact. You just can't. So instead, as with Identity, you get 90 seconds of John Cusack, Amanda Peet and Ray Liotta in the rain taking turns shouting in concern, looking frightened or pissed off, flanked by images of Clea DuVall screaming in horror, a car blowing up, dead bodies and then horrified gasps that the bodies are missing!! Oh...and it takes place in a motel.
So, if any of that makes any sense to you, god bless you. The rest of us, however, need to enter this film with an open mind and not only allow the film to take you where it wants to, but to also take a moment to sit back and reflect on what it is you are seeing. Since my spoiler warning was well advanced and I'm giving you yet another opportunity to flee, I am going to tell you exactly what this movie is about.
Psychology. The exploration and ultimate destruction of the Ego. The arrival and passing of the Epiphany of Being.
This film is about "Being and Nothingness" by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Uh, what? I can hear you all from here...remember, I said: Open Mind. Pay attention. Two very easy instructions. James Mangold is not a director that "cuts to the cat." Mangold shows you EXACTLY what you need to see and nothing you see is unimportant.
The voice at the opening of the film tells us what our story will be:
When I was going up the stairs,
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today,
I wish, I wish he'd go away.
All the clues are set out on the desk before us, but like most audiences we wait to see people and action, to hear dialog and expect that these things will tell us the story. In truth, like life, it is the small details that determine the outcome of most things.
The first third of this Neo-Noir is setting our stage. introducing a large cast of characters that one by one slowly shrinks to One. A convicted murder, Malcolm Rivers, is granted a midnight hearing the night before his execution based upon misfiled evidence which his Psychiatrist believes will prove the Insanity plea he was not granted at trial. The Judge is, of course, displeased to be awakened and that this highly dangerous man is being transported during the second flood of Noah. The others are introduced in a series of chain events that inevitably leave them all stranded at a roadside Motel during a torrential storm. The flooding is more than symbolic, it is prophetic.
Ed is a Limo Driver and ex-cop who is driving the exceptionally narcissistic Caroline Suzanne, a has-been actress. They accidentally hit Alice York while she helps her husband George change their tire in the rain and their nine year old son Timmy watches from the car. The closest building is the generically signed MOTEL, which is run by Larry who is opposed to renting a room to Paris, a Las Vegas Prostitute on her way back to Florida to grow oranges. A newly married couple Ginny and Lou arrive in less than marital bliss, the new bride murmuring psychic inclinations and interests in numerology. While this crew all get settled in with Alice slowly bleeding to death, "Officer" Rhodes arrives with his prisoner transport, a multiple murder convict, whose name we do not hear. And now our stage is set.
The only way to truly break down the elements of this story is in parts. I will start with the surface story and work in...like a masseuse, loosening up your muscles then really digging into that grey matter. On the surface we have two stories being presented. The first, which is the action and excitement, is the methodical and mysterious murders of the Eleven people at the MOTEL. The second is the hearing for Malcolm Rivers, which through out the first half of the movie leads you to believe that the "prisoner" at the MOTEL is Malcolm. There are seven murders at the MOTEL by mid point and only Ed, Paris, Rhodes and Larry are still alive...then Dr. Malick springs the Jack-in-the Box: Malcolm Rivers has Multiple Personality Disorder.
It is, of course, not until we SEE Malcolm Rivers that the even moderately astute realize what is happening. The Motel is Malcolm's mind...the guests, his personalities, and they are at war. It is a very Highlander battle, to boot, as 'There can be only One.' Through out the story our Hero has been Ed. He's calm, in control and is trying to do the right thing.
Remember I said this movie was about Psychology? Where this is where the text book starts. At one point in the film, Mansgold shows us a book on the front seat of Ed's limo. There is no action taken with it, no words spoken in reference to it, just a seemingly pointless shot of the book. Why, however, would any director just suddenly show a book? If you can read the title on it, it is because they want you to. 'The Idiot' in "The Machinist" wasn't shown by accident... nor were the stack of Philosophy books in Neo's apartment in "The Matrix". Is the movie of any lesser value because you don't catch the inside joke? Not at all, but it can be greatly enhanced if you do. More of the little things will click.
The book in Ed's limo is "Being and Nothingness" by Jean-Paul Sartre, a book which has been a source of inspiration and a basis of statement for much of the Existentialist movement of the early 20th century. Existentialism, of which Sartre is often called the Father, is the belief that human beings define the meaning and worth of our lives or existence. It posits that without the presence of a transcendental force (mainly meaning a God) that mankind is then ultimately responsible for their own existence, which means...there is no one else to blame for your unhappiness and no one to thank for your well-being. This isn't to be confused with Nihilism which argues that there is no meaning to Existence.
The importance of this book in the film is that it deepens our understanding of Ed's journey. When Ed confesses to Paris why his is no longer a cop, he shows the only hint of emotion that we ever receive from Ed in mere hesitation. He explains that he was trying to talk a jumper down; a 15 year old girl with AIDS, pregnant, poor, no family or friends. His training had told him to tell her about all the people that would miss her, etcetera, but when she asked why she should bother living, he could not think of a single optimistic thing to say and in his hesitation she heard the answer she expected, and she jumped. In Ed's mind it was his responsibility to talk that girl down. He took adamant responsibility for hitting Alice. When the murders in the Motel began, he took responsibility to do what needed to be done, to do what was right. He defined these parameters, he set the guidelines for was right and in doing so defined the rules for the group.
Sartre describes the three existential emotions, anguish, forlornness, and despair, and offers us his opinion on each of them. For anguish he gives us a definition that anguish is felt by a person "who involves himself and who realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be, but also a lawmaker who is, at the same time, choosing all mankind as well as himself." He gives us the example of Abraham believing that an angel of God has ordered him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, this shows the anguish of trying to act rightly without ever being able to secure any conclusive evidence of what is the right course of action. Source
Over the course of the first two acts of the film, Ed, though he shows little but consternation, is in a constant state of anguish as the harder he works to keep everyone safe, the quicker they seem to be dying and this culminates in the moment that he orders Ginny to take Timmy and Paris and leave the Motel. He orders it and as Ginny and Timmy get in the car, it explodes. This is a completely irrational event in every way and Ed immediately attempts to assign responsibility to himself, until Rhodes points out that there are no bodies. Rhodes also tries to blame Ed but the paradigm has shifted. The rules as Ed had defined them, the rules of reality as he understood it are no longer the same. Something has changed and as this happens, he then experiences Sartre next 'Existential Emotion', that of Forlornness, or in essence, Abandonment.
The second emotion, forlornness, Sartre says that it is "very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it." Source
Paris flamboyantly screams out at the rain, raging at their 'unseen' attacker, because surely there must be a source for their suffering that exists outside of themselves. Ed tries to calm her, not to tell her that everything is alright, but because he sees a futility in her action. It is shortly after this that Ed makes his 'Breakthrough.' Symbolically the rain collapses the roof, flooding the room and shorting out the power.
Let me take an aside to discuss the rain a moment. Ginny at one point explains the roadside attraction that the Motel uses to draw, having read a brochure in the lobby. The Motel is on lands known as "The Tribal Tombs." I will grant upon hearing that the first time I cringed with images of Craig T Nelson wading amongst coffins in his unfinished pool during a storm, but the object of this story is far more sinister than some simple "Indian Burial Ground." The land was reservation land that the Natives were forced onto, but there was no water, and according to their legend, the entire tribe died of dehydration.
It hardly takes a literary wunderkind to see the striking paradox of a terminally dehydrated tribe and the flood-trapped victims in the motel. There is nothing paranormal about it in the cheap, Fear.net grade-F horror-flick sort of way...just simple literary device.
So as Ed has his breakthrough he is suddenly not in the Motel, but strapped to a wheelchair in a Judge's office staring at a room full of lawyers and quite confused. Now reality for Ed gets really bent as Dr. Malick explains that fresh-faced John Cusack is not real, but that Ed is really just an aspect of Malcolm Rivers' mind, a heavy set man with unnerving nystagmus and no hair. It is now that we see the first smile on Ed's face and it is almost unsettling as he struggles with his disbelief. After all, the good doctor just informed him that he doesn't really exist.
The third and last emotion, despair, is the realization that we cannot ultimately rely on anyone else for anything. It is a rather disturbing realization. "But, given that man is free and that there is no human nature for me to depend on, I can not count on men whom I do not know by relying on human goodness or man's concern for the good of society."Source
Ed is told that he doesn't exist, that the violence that he's been witnessing and experiencing is as a result of Malcolm's personalities being forced to confront each other. Even more frighteningly, one of the three other people at the "motel" is a killer and that the Killer must not be allowed to survive. I find this scenario interesting as well because Sartre also wrote "No Exit," a play in which four people are trapped in a hotel which they soon discover is Hell and upon this discovery expect to be tortured. They soon find that their torture is very effectively enacted on them by each other. This play is the source of the quote: "Hell is other people."
In effect, Ed has just been told, he's in Sartre's idea of Hell. He does not exist but is being asked to take responsibility for the salvation of the man who is, ultimately, his creator. How fucked up is that?
Rhodes: I didn't do all this! You can't blame me for this! It's bigger than me!
Ed: Slightly. Yes.
What is fascinating though, is that Ed does not go back into this imagined world of the Motel with guns blazing like Neo entering the Matrix. From a logical stand point, one would think it makes the most sense to enter in with self preservation in mind, but Ed doesn't do this. He instead goes in with the intention of irradicating the one man he PERCEIVES as the threat, to - by Ed's defined rules of reality - thereby allow the most number of persons survive.
I think my only complaint with this film is that, unless you have fallen into Cooney's groove with it, the outcome is too much of a surprise. Although all the signs are laid out before you, the twisted ending doesn't strike you like Fight Club's where you sit back and say "Oh...well that makes sense..." Instead you are almost struck with a dumbfounded, "well I didn't see that coming."
I was not too startled only because there was one key point mentioned about Malcolm's mother early in the film. She was a prostitute. Through out the film, Paris is routinely disparaged by the other characters, treated well by no one but Ed. Once Ed died, any sympathy or understanding for her role - because keep in mind, she is just a character created by a traumatized little boy - once Ed died, that sympathy died with him and nothing but animosity remained.
The fact that only Timmy and Ginny's bodies were NEVER seen indicated it would be one of them, and another traumatized little boy (having seen both his parents killed) made the most logical choice to come back at the end and plant a trowel in Paris' skull, with an almost campy line of "Whore's don't get a second chance."
I do not begrudge writer or director with the slightly melodramatic touch to the ending as they spent a good deal of the movie presenting material that many average audiences would not sit through. I felt that over all, however, they did a fantastic job. Upon my reviewing of the film I actually sat and took two pages of notes that crossed the map from color analysis to the recurrence of the number 9. I don't pretend to know the exact reasons for everything in the film but I can speculate that their use of color symbolism is a tried and true psychology method in art to manipulate the emotions and impressions of the viewer. Just by simply grouping the authoritative figures all in black and the weakest figures in brown, our minds assign them status and importance, which is why Paris stands out so starkly as she is the only character seen in the color red at any point in the film. By doing that, there is no need to dress her in an overly provocative fashion as she already is catching our eye.
The recurrence of numbers is too frequent to be accidental. Ginny and Lou were married 9 hours, Timmy was 9 years old, Paris was inheriting 9 acres of land in Florida, Room 6 did that classic horror movie swing down into a 9 for no evident reason, and the bitch actress moved herself from room 8 to room 9, even though rooms 1,2,5 and 11 were all empty. Also note that if you count all 10 victims PLUS the survivor Timmy, that makes 11...there are 11 rooms at the motel.
If you want a peek into my absolutely absurd love of research and film...or researching film...I could delve into the idea that in the film there are 10 victims (not counting the already dead Larry in the freezer). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders list exactly 10 personality disorders. Yes, 10, and I could go on for another twenty pages about how each one of the Motel Victims fits one of those disorders as described. Was this intentional on Michel Cooney's part - not necessarily. Any writer/storyteller with a firm enough grasp on human behavior would have naturally gravitated to including each of the personality types sans a disorder: Paranoid, emotionally reserved, cowardly, antisocial, borderline psychotic, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, overly dependent and obsessive.
Identity is a film with an incredible story, a remarkable cast, and an innovative writer and director. The construction was not the decadent Mise-en-scène detail found in Marie Antoinette, but it was planned and executed with no less care. This film is a fourth run film.
My final word is a thank you to my husband who sat and indulged me as we went frame by frame through the movie in an attempt to read the NAME of the motel on the red triangular sign, which I was so certain would add even a smidgen more meaning. At every point that the sign is shown it is mostly obscured or at a great distance. Through the power of patience and the zoom function on our DVD remote...we finally found, to my embarrassment, that it says "Air Conditioned."
No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre