Christie classic translates mystery gold to screen

On the surface, the plot of “Identity” is as simple as can be: 10 people check into a dingy motel on a stormy night. Unbeknownst to the eclectic array of worn-out travelers, a killer is in their midst.

One by one, the group is picked apart, and then found brutally murdered in a number of gruesome ways. However, when the bodies start to disappear without a trace, group leader Ed (John Cusack, in fantastic form) begins to wonder whether some larger forces are at play. Ghosts? Multiple killers? Just who is behind these nefarious crimes?

Lay down your bets and buckle your seatbelts, because “Identity” will have you guessing the whole way through.

Let me start by saying that it takes a lot to fool me in a film. Off the bat, I already saw through one part of the film’s plot and made my first guess as to who the murderer was. As the movie unfolded, however, it made me retract my hypothesis and kept me guessing. Could the murderer be strange hotel owner Larry (portrayed perfectly by underappreciated John Hawkes)? The I-need-anger-management police officer Rhodes (a masterful Ray Liotta)? Or perhaps it’s the heroic detective-turned-limo-driver Ed?

New clues surface each moment. One minute, I thought the movie would be the typical killer-gets-loose-and-kills-by-room-numbers storyline. Five minutes later, I wondered if the film was just a flashback in the mind of another character. The mental game between the film and the audience was ongoing.

All I can say is – WOW! This film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Based on a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, I expected one prototypical ending and was given something entirely different. Kudos to director James Mangold for an ingenious adaptation – it takes someone very smart to trick the audience multiple times into believing that the story is something entirely different than what it actually is.

A large part of the film’s success is due to the cast, headed by a superb performance by veteran Cusack. I was a big fan of him before this movie, but now I think he’s one of the most talented actors in Hollywood. Usually seen as a comedic actor who has mastered the neurotic, flawed-but-funny everyman, Cusack completely switches tracks without a hitch to portray a former police officer who is forced to use his hidden talents to try to solve the mystery of the deaths. It’s hard to place a finger on what it is about his performance that makes it so special, but perhaps that’s it – Cusack seems so natural, it’s hard to believe he doesn’t normally do dramatic roles.

The supporting cast does well, too. Amanda Peet, an actress who has yet to show a lot of acting ability, does a decent job, as does the ever-in-hysterics Clea Duvall as Ginny. William Lee Scott is a talented up-and-coming actor and Jake Busey just looks menacing. If any actor appears believable as a mentally-unstable criminal, it’s Busey.

Surprisingly, I could find nothing wrong with this film. Well, I take that back – Peet’s makeshift birthday cake introduction is definitely wrong. Aside from that, there were only a few things that I thought were noteworthy, although they’re more amusing than bad.

Does anyone else think that the hit-by-car injury is one of the easiest moments to predict in films? Come on, the music disappears, the camera allows the actor or actress to walk backwards, everything seems safe and then POW!

If you liked the films “Donnie Darko,” “Fight Club” or “Memento,” this one will blow you away.