Here’s what I’ve learned about writing. The first step is the hardest. The page in front of you is blank and so is your mind. You have a thousand ideas floating in your head, but you don’t know how to form them into words, how to organize the thoughts into a coherent story. However, at some point the dam bursts, and the words start to flow, as if the half hour you spent just staring at an empty page didn’t even happen. The second step is also the hardest. At some point you run out of momentum, you know how your story is supposed to end, ostensibly, but you don’t know how to get there. Perhaps you’ve written yourself into a corner or explored all the interesting ideas you wanted to explore already or the story is starting to feel stagnant. In spite of your desire to press forward, you have to take a break. When you start again, it’s as if you’re at step one, but this time it comes easier because your ideas have already started to cohere, and you can pick up the rhythm easier. Now for the third step: the third step is the hardest of all, the end. You’ve created a compelling, multifaceted narrative, but now it’s time to weave all of the plot threads together, to bring the action to some sort of climax, and to resolve the climax and provide a denouement that is provides a satisfying, graceful closure that does justice to the tale. Writing is difficult, which is why all three steps are the hardest. However, the ending is the hardest of all because it serves as a kind of lynch pin to the entire narrative. The screenwriter who penned Identity successfully navigated the first two treacherous steps of writing with aplomb. The movie has a great setup and carries it out nicely. Yet, the whole movie practically falls apart at the end, thanks to a final twist about who the killer is.
Identity is set up in classic murder mystery fashion, which comes as no surprise because the movie was influenced by Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None – formerly Ten Little Indians before that was politically incorrect. Eleven strangers come together in the middle of a rainstorm that floods the highways, all trapped at the same time. Among the strangers are the owner of the motel named Larry, a prostitute named Paris, a limo driver and ex-cop named Edward, an actress named Caroline, newlyweds Lou and Ginny, a family with a father named George, a mother named Alice, who Ed accidentally injures in a car accident, and their son named Timothy, and a police officer named Rhodes who’s escorting a convicted killer named Robert. Meanwhile, a convicted serial killer named Malcolm Rivers is having his case reviewed one more time, the night before he’s to be executed. His lawyer and psychologist have evidence that might overturn the decision to have him executed; the legality of this is questionable, and it seems ill-timed to schedule such a hearing the night before Malcolm’s execution but whatever. The mother, Alice, is gravely injured, but seems stable for the moment; the cell-phones aren’t getting service, the land line is out, and Rhodes is unable to call anyone up on the police radio, so she just has to hang tight. Unfortunately, things quickly take a turn for the worse when Robert, the killer in Rhodes’s custody, escapes and Caroline’s severed head is found in a dryer.
The group congregates in the motel’s front office, while Rhodes and Ed go looking for Robert. Of course, Ginny freaks out and runs to her room with her husband Lou trailing after. They have a fight that culminates in her admitting that she lied about being pregnant, and then she hides in the bathroom. Lou is angry and bangs on the door, commanding her to let him in. She refuses, which directly leads to his death as an unseen assailant stabs him. Ginny runs back to the others, escaping from the killer. Ed, Rhodes, and Larry continue the search for Robert, finding him hiding in the closed up diner adjacent to the motel. They knock him out and tie him up to a wooden post, leaving Larry in charge of guarding the prisoner. All seems clear, but Larry leaves his post and when the three men return, they find Robert dead with Larry’s baseball bat shoved down his throat. Larry denies killing Robert, but he accidentally drops the dead actress Caroline’s wallet, which he stole from her room. He tries to escape by threatening to kill Paris by putting a knife to her throat, but she pushes away from him and accidentally opens the diner freezer, revealing a frozen corpse. Larry runs to his truck and tries to escape, but runs into the side of the building to avoid hitting Timothy, killing George, who was trying to push his son out of the way.
The group congregates in the front office once again. They tie Larry to a chair, and he states his case. Larry claims that he lost all of his money in Vegas and happened upon the hotel on his way west. He came across the dead owner and decided to put him in the freezer so that he wouldn’t decompose. When visitors came, he gave them keys to their rooms and took their money because he needed it; nobody ever came for the owner. Everyone but Rhodes is inclined to believe Larry’s story. Alice, Timothy’s mother dies, and weird phenomena like the lights flickering and the door slamming shut by itself spook the whole group; they believe there’s something supernatural going on. Ed orders the girls to take the car and leave, to just get away from the hotel, so Ginny and Timothy run out to start the car; however, the car explodes, apparently when they started it, killing them both. Ed, Rhodes, and Paris reason that Larry couldn’t have been responsible for the car explosion. All four look around and discover that the bodies of each of the murder victims is gone, as is the blood, and the only thing left behind are the keys to their rooms at the motel, starting at 10 and counting down. They also start noticing weird coincidences, like the fact that all eleven of them share the same birthday and they each have a name that corresponds to a state; for instance, Ed’s last name is Dakota and Paris’s last name is Nevada.
Meanwhile, Malcolm Rivers has been brought to the hearing, and we learn that he has dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder. Ed, one of Malcolm’s identities, arises and asks the doctor what’s happening and why he’s at the hearing, after explaining his situation at the hotel. The doctor explains that he’s actually Malcolm Rivers and that each person at the hotel is one of his personalities; he tells Ed/Malcolm that he has to stop the killer personality, the one that committed the vicious murders, from taking over. In effect, the personalities are in a kind of showdown for control of Malcolm, though they’re not aware of it. Ed returns back to the fantasy at the hotel, knowing what he must do.
Paris enters the police car, probably intending to make a call on the radio, but she comes across a couple police records in the front seat. She finds a record for Robert and a record for Rhodes. Paris realizes that Rhodes is a convict who’s just been posing as a police officer and that he must have overpowered the real police escort; she finds the real police officer dead in the trunk. She goes looking for Larry, but Rhodes shows up, demanding that she give him the keys. Larry stuns him by knocking him over the head with a fire extinguisher, but Rhodes shoots Larry to death and gets back up. He chases Paris, but Ed shows up to save the day. He shoots Larry and in turn Larry shoots him, leaving Paris as the surviving personality.
The lawyers, judge, and doctor at the hearing witness Malcolm acting out the whole drama in his head, hearing him changing his voice to the various personalities. Combined with a diary that also displays him writing from the perspectives of his various personalities, the evidence shows that he’s clearly not of sound mind to receive the death penalty, and the judge decides to stay his execution and instead to send him to a mental institution. On the transport to the institution, we see Paris in the fantasy in his head, finally back home at her orchard in Florida. Suddenly, Timothy shows up and we learn that not only did he escape the explosion, but he also orchestrated the deaths of all of the other personalities. He kills Paris and takes over Malcolm, causing Malcolm to attack the people in the transport truck.
Identity takes a classic murder mystery setup and adds a unique psychological twist. The film stays suspenseful to the end, constantly dodging our expectations by killing off the characters we suspect of being the killers. So why did the killer have to be the little boy? I know that the personalities exist in a kind of fantasy/dream world, but what makes that kid so freaking evil and powerful. Not only does he orchestrate the deaths of the characters with uncanny prescience – for instance knowing Larry would run into George and that Ed and Rhodes would kill each other – but he also does crazy stuff like rig a car to explode and jams a baseball bat down a convict’s throat. I’ve accepted that kids can be devious and murderous in the movies; Children of the Corn is a good example. Yet, Timothy seems like a bizarre choice for the mastermind killer, if only because he’s silent and innocent looking the entire time he’s onscreen save for the end. There’s not even the slightest hint that he could be evil, and it feels like kind of a cheat in a film that’s a mystery. However, I’m willing to let it slide. The ‘kid is evil’ final twist is stupid, but it’s a good film otherwise, and I’m nothing if not forgiving when movies err. As a writer, I can imagine the screenwriter’s dilemma. He wrote a good screenplay, but he wasn’t sure how to end it with a bang, to do justice to the twisty nature of the plot at the end, and so he tried to use the standard horror movies ‘last scare.’ He pulled off the ‘last scare’ with less than aplomb and made all the preceding events in the film look ridiculous, knowing that the kid was the killer all along. Nevertheless, I’m willing to forgive the serial killer Timothy because writing a good story is hard, and the writing a good ending is the hardest of all.