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(2003) *** R
87 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Stephen Rollins. Cast: Jesse Garcia, Illena Oliver.

A postmodern take on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, the tightly plotted horror-thriller Identity packs a few good twists. Perhaps due to an overeager trailer and my aforeknowledge of a "big twist," I puzzled out the pivotal plot turn before the halfway mark, but Michael Cooney's script niftily moves beyond its twist to twin resolutions of its dual storyline.

One storyline involves the final night of a death-row inmate (Pruitt Taylor Vince) due for execution. As the killer's lawyers and psychologist (Alfred Molina) manuever for his life, the film cuts away to a more elaborate story of hapless drivers holed up in a motel during flood weather. Cooney raises the ante with a couple of big, big problems for the eleven folks trapped in the remote, rain-battered fleatrap, not the least of which is a suspicious dwindling of the guests. The storylines dutifully cross in the end and, mystery revealed, continue in their predetermined directions.

Among the pleasures of Identity is another stellar leading performance by John Cusack, as Ed, a tortured limo driver turned reluctant detective. Cusack heads up a funky but effective ensemble including Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Clea DuVall, Rebecca De Mornay, John C. McGinley, John Hawkes, William Lee Scott, Jake Busey, and Leila Kenzle. As usual, Liotta's edgy flair takes him places, and Peet proves surprisingly effective as a desperate and confused prostitute.

Director James Mangold's career spans his indie debut Heavy through Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, and Kate and Leopold to this gruesome psycho thriller. Next, he'll tackle the life of Johnny Cash, so clearly, this is not a man afraid of challenging himself (or dour subjects, for that matter). Here, Mangold's challenge is to put a delicate touch on an eventful story goosed by orgiastic bursts of violence. Mangold lets off the gas a bit whenever he brushes against clues, while craftily making up time with the fast-paced action sequences. Best of all, at 87 minutes, Identity knows when to get off the stage.

Despite Mangold's best efforts, Cooney's clues can be a bit insistent or self-satisfied (or is it Mangold who chooses to start the film with a well-known quatrain by the obscure Hughes Mearns and to drop Sartre into Ed's front seat?). All in all, Mangold's "actor's director" chops serve him well here, as do his smooth stylings. With some of the clever, character-driven panache of Stephen King, Identity may be all empty calories, but it provides a rush all the same.

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