Sometimes, in the race between movie and moviegoer, the audience takes the lead.
Sometimes, we can see it coming, or sense the secret from the outset. We can see the train around the bend, before the whistle finds the wind. And it's the good film that stumps us, opens our jaw and makes it a tunnel. And the train blows through.
Identity could have been that kind of movie -- that old-fashioned mystery, or the lost whodunit -- and for a film that draws its inspiration from a classic like Ten Little Indians, it seemed so full of promise. The trailer, for all its impressive editing and tempting visuals. The premise, for all its inherent possibility.
Ten strangers, gathered together. A random assembly, though somehow connected. An abandoned motel. A midnight flood. One murder. After another.
And for the first two-thirds of the film, it works so well. The mystery-machine passes mile after mile of interesting suspects and well-tuned tension, adding question after question in place of answers. There is a challenge, or so it seems, and a difficult one at that. We are engaged and in the moment, as clueless as the victims on screen.
The cast is strong, with John Cusack and Amanda Pete adding a layer of depth to what might otherwise have been a rather soulless piece. The direction, by James Mangold, is both sharp and visually-gripping, leading us along at a steady and balanced pace.
But the seed is there, for the watchful viewer, for an ending to ruin it all. The clues, like any good villain, are both obvious and subtle, there in the flashback narrative, or in the shifting face of the killer reciting the story. And suddenly we realize that the mystery of promise is no mystery at all. That there are no clues, no logic or challenge for our minds to overcome. Like a magic coin, the characters vanish. We no longer care, and, frankly, why would we? There's nothing more to care about. We've been deceived in a way that simply isn't fair.
The science of the twist is an art of respect, as much about bravery as it is about talent. A good twist is the opposite of magic, the very lack of illusion -- slight of hand and nothing more. The confident filmmaker draws surprise from logic, never palming the coin or hiding the card, but distracting our eyes with a polished technique. For a good film, the trick is in the truth, and the coin, we find, was always there. We just weren't looking.
Sadly, however, Identity falls short, mistaking fraudulent shock for honest surprise, and the answer, for some, has been there all along. From the beginning we might have imagined it and dismissed it as tactless, but alas, the film goes where we hoped it would not go, even as we cringe and beg it to turn back.
And there, in the death-knell darkness, the story commits the greatest crime of all: the murder of a movie, and the death of what could have been.