Good people was, justifiably, the first word in almost every title that hit Ray Liotta‘passed last week; every actor who can hold his own against Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in a Martin Scorsese classic deserves recognition. But, in addition to excelling at the tough guy, he also had a vulnerable side as well as comedy hacks. As a result, the list of his memorable performances is impressively long.
He won a Golden Globe nomination for his first supporting role in Something Wild; he embodied the ghost of Barefoot Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams; he flew away from the handle like a low policeman Illegal Entry; he ate his own brain inside Hannibal; he has appeared in two Muppet films (Muppets the Space and Muppets Most Wanted); he played a pivotal role as Ryan Reynolds’ partner in Smokin ‘Aces; he duced it with Seth Rogen to Queen’s tune in Observe and Report; and he voiced the protagonist in one of the most celebrated video games of all time, Grand Theft Auto: Vicurboto name a few.
But the movie Ray Liotta that I think about the most is 2003 Identity, in which he poses as one of several people left stranded in a deserted Nevada motel due to heavy rain only to be picked off one by one by an unknown killer. It is essentially a modern retelling of Agatha Christie’s influential 1939 whodunit And Then There Were None (which character directly refers to in the film) until a seismic twist recaptures everything.
Guests include a limousine Ed (John Cusack), Correction Officer Rhodes (Liotta) and his prisoner transport Robert Maine (Jake Busey, Starship Troopers), sex worker Paris (Amanda Peet, The X-Files: I Want to Believe), diva actress Caroline (Rebecca De Mornay, Risky Business), young newlyweds Lou (William Lee Scott, The Butterfly Effect) and Ginny (Clea DuVall, The Faculty), parents George (John C. McGinley, Scrubs) and Alice (Leila Kenzle, Crazy about you) with young son Timmy (Bret Loehr), and motel director Larry (John Hawkes, Winter Bone).
The abundance of characters is cleverly juggled, each easily defined by their whims after lively introductions by a carefully edited (courtesy of an Academy Award winner David Brenner) flashbacks showing their intersecting trajectories. As the mystery unfolds, the B story is about an informal trial for the death row inmate Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Constantine), with Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) as his psychiatrist and Holmes Osborne (Donnie Darko) as the judge.
Identity is an exciting ride that builds Twilight Zone-esque plot while clicking tension for 90 minutes. The carpet is pulled out from under the viewer several times, most notably with a clever three-act twist that could amaze M. Night Shyamalan and again with a shock button just before the credits roll. Like any good mystery, the clues are hidden in plain sight, making repeated viewings rewarding.
James Mangold (Logan, Ford v Ferrari) was a somewhat unexpected choice to direct Identity in 2003, coming out back-to-back praised dramas with Girl, Interrupted and Kate & Leopold, but he does it with joy. Despite being contained to a single location, the images never get boring. Working with a director of photography Phedon Papamichael (The Chase of Happiness, Ford v Ferrari), Mangold gives the bright image a neo-noir atmosphere with shady cinematography and an endless stream of rain.
Similarly surprising is the fact that the tightly intriguing script was written by Michael Cooneywhose only earlier notable work is writing and directing the 1997 assassin snowman cult classic Jack Frost. He uses his genre background by injecting slasher film thinking into the psychological thriller. As Cusack notes in an output, “In a lot of movies, you have to do things where character motivates a plot. This is one where, somehow, the actors are kind of those elegant chess pieces; the writer and director weave those different stories.”
From screen veterans to character actors, the eccentric ensemble plays well with each other. Cusack glitters like the flawed hero. Liotta, reuniting with Mangold after working together in 1997 Cop Land, delivers layered performance. Peet embodies the independent woman who refuses to be abused. Glasses McGinley plays ineffectively shaken well. Busey is effortlessly disgusting. Vince, who starred in Mangold’s 1995 debut Weightis cool yet sympathetic.
Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks) was originally hired to compose the music, only to be replaced by Alan Silvestri. Silvestri’s score is noticeably more subtle than his magnificent work in likenesses Back to the Future, The Avengersand Forrest Gump, but it’s scary enough to match the tone of the movie. The music also makes good use of “All My Life” by Foo Fighters and “I Want You” by Bob Dylan.
The film was shot in the Los Angeles area on a budget of $ 28 million. Identity opened at No. 1 at the box office on April 25, 2003, reaching over $ 16 million, and went on to earn over $ 90 million worldwide. It received mixed but generally favorable reviews, sitting at 63% on Rotten Tomatoes. Although I can see why it can get tangled up with the twist for some, I consider it to be an almost perfect thriller, as it brilliantly undermines expectations on all sides without a dull moment. It currently streams on Netflix.