At a motel along a deserted stretch of a Nevada highway, 10 people take shelter during a storm only to be killed, one by one, in the sleek and clever thriller "Identity." Throughout, the film teeters tantalizingly on the preposterous, but James Mangold's astute direction and Michael Cooney's carefully thought-out script keep it from sliding over the edge. "Identity" is fine escapist fare with a saving sense of humor and an underlying premise that, when revealed, proves to be arguably plausible even if a reach.
Tightly interlocked plot developments, involving a credible interplay of fate and character, start delivering the guests to the motel, whose night manager, Larry (John Hawkes), seems edgier than even decidedly inclement weather would justify. Among the guests arriving that evening are a self-important faded TV star (Rebecca DeMornay), whose put-upon, fed-up driver (John Cusack) is a burned-out, ex-L.A. cop; a hot-headed but none too sharp policeman (Ray Liotta) transporting a wild-eyed prisoner (Jake Busey); a stunningly beautiful and self-possessed call girl (Amanda Peet); a pair of newlyweds (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott); and a distraught husband (John C. McGinley) whose wife (Leila Kenzle) has been injured in a highway accident. Traveling with that couple is the wife's strangely silent small son (Bret Loehr) by a previous marriage.
From time to time the filmmakers cut away to another suspenseful development as a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) and an attorney (Carmen Argenziano) argue for a stay of execution for their client (Pruitt Taylor Vince) on the basis of newly discovered evidence. Deft intercutting with this sidebar invites all manner of speculation as to its connection with the increasing body count back at the motel.
It is hard to imagine how anyone could figure out the film's underlying puzzle and what all the serial killings signify in advance of the filmmakers revealing it gradually for maximum impact.
Cusack's world-weary but capable former lawman emerges as the beleaguered natural leader, a state of affairs resented by the combustible Liotta, who not unreasonably feels he should be in charge. While many of the others give in to jitters, Peet keeps her cool and emerges as a strong presence. In a welcome change of pace from his usual nasty types, McGinley gets to play a perfectly ordinary guy, a loving husband overwhelmed by circumstances. "Identity" asks considerable suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, but Mangold's painstaking, rigorously focused direction provides plenty of incentive to go along with this psychologically complex variation on Agatha Christie's classic "Ten Little Indians."
MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language
Times guidelines: The violence is strong but standard for the thriller genre, as is the language; the film is too intense for young audiences.
A Columbia Pictures release. Director James Mangold. Producer Cathy Konrad. Executive producer Stuart Besser. Screenplay Michael Cooney. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Editor David Brenner. Music Alan Silvestri. Costumes Arianne Phillips. Production designer Mark Friedberg. Art director Jess Gonchor. Set decorator Cindy Carr. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In general release.