Director: James Mangold
Writer: Michael Cooney
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael Jr.
Producer: Cathy Konrad
by Jon Cvack
I recall sitting in my friend’s girlfriend’s basement in high school when this preview played on TV. We had been shooting a short film at the time, involving four friends whose car broke down on a road trip and they’re hunted down by a killer. We shot around town in old barns, main street, and hoped to find an old motel comparable to Joy Ride (2001), and thus when this preview played, we were enamored. It looked like the exact type of film we’d need for inspiration; a collection of ten characters all trapped at a hotel as they’re killed one by one.
I can’t recall whether we saw the film in theaters, but I do recall the utter thrill the first half of the film provided which was every bit as good and exciting as I hoped for. The neon light, the downpour, the dilapidated hotel in the middle of nowhere. There were cheesy moments, but the B-movie plot excused all that. And then, what I discovered was nearly exactly at the midpoint this last round, one of the characters, an alleged criminal, escapes the hotel, falls down into a drainage ditch to then hop up the other side and find himself back at the hotel. It made no sense. There could be no logical explanation and the first warning flag went up.
In the end - spoiler - we learn that all we’ve been watching was a hallucination by a schizophrenic murderer on death row, and that all the characters we were watching were simply his various personalities. It’s the worst ending to an otherwise good movie I’ve ever seen. By far. And given that the film was inspired by Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, you can’t help but wonder why in the world they decided to abandon a legitimate plot in favor of making it all a dream. It’ll go down as one of the biggest disappointments in thriller cinema.
The film opens up Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who’s on death row for a series of murders. When the defense finds a diary that wasn’t introduced in the trial, they call up Judge Taylor (Holmes Osborne) in the middle of a rainy night as Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina) hopes to persuade him to stay the execution due to Rivers being psychologically ill and unaware of what he’s doing..
The film cuts to the ten characters in rapid fashion, intercut in a fairly smart, non-linear order. All taking place during a down pour, they include a family of three George York (John C. McGinley) and his wife Alice (Leila Kenzle) and her child from a previous marriage Timmy (Bret Loehr). When they get a flat tire, George pulls over to the side of the road while George attempts to fix it, finding a high steel stuck in the tire. Alice heads to the backseat, knocking on the glass and comforting her son. She takes just a step back and is slammed by car.
The film cuts back to Paris Nevada (Amanda Peet), a Las Vegas prostitute who’s gotten out of dodge. Introduced with the cheeseball Foo Foo Fighter’s “All My Life” (not the song itself so much as the pairing), she drives a old convertible, reaches into her side suitcase which explodes open from the wind, sending her clothes flying through the air while below we see wads of cash. We see that a high heel shoe had fallen out of the suitcase, now sitting on the road.
The film cuts again to limo driver Edward Dakota (John Cusack) who’s driving the insufferable television diva Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay). As Caroline complains about the downpour, the distracted Edward strikes Alice and slams on the breaks. Caroline demands they drive off, but he refuses, finding the body and taking it into the limo.
There’s a bit of a time illogic - but given it’s all a fantasy, I guess it doesn’t matter - in that Paris then arrives to a flooded road, forced to turn back, meaning although she’s been driving for about three or four hours, she hasn’t gotten any further than the edge of town. She finds the rest in the road and they head to the local motel.
The motel is allegedly managed by Larry Washington (John Hawkes) who knows Paris is a prostitute after recalling her ad in the back of some porn magazines; offering a one-dimensional animosity toward her, not even wanting her in the motel for whatever reason. Hawkes is talented enough to add the nuance missing from the script (though only by a hair) in that he seems to want to have sex with the woman, but can’t admit it, and the script doesn’t spend any time exploring this, making it feel superficial and gross. After all, Amanda Peet is incredibly attractive, and prostitute or no, I don’t think any man could possibly have this much bitterness and hate, especially after having nothing but nudey magazines to look at for who knows how long.
A grating newlywed couple Lou (William Lee Scott) and Ginny (Clea DuVall) arrives. Lou’s a slimy douche who can’t keep his eyes off Paris, while Ginny is equally insufferably anxious, doing little beyond crying and whining nonstop. And finally, a police cruiser pulls up, with the alleged detective Samuel Rhoades (Ray Liotta) and a prisoner he’s transferring, Robert Maine (Jake Busey). Knowing they’re all trapped for the night, Samuel chains Robert to a toilet while the others tend to Alice.
We learn that Edward is a former cop, assisting in John Cusack’s gentle way with Samuel’s investigation, encouraging him to keep calling on the radio, though we later find out Samuel has no intention of doing such a thing, as he too is a conman who killed the officer transferring them, kept Robert posed as the prisoner and has been pretending to be a cop.
It’s when Caroline takes a phone call and ends up in the laundry room that Larry, Samuel, and Edward discover her decapitated body in the laundry room along with a hotel key - #1. Gradually, each of the patrons are butchered off, making some believe the killer is amongst them.
One by one they go, each in increasingly incredulous ways, but it’s after seeing Robert escape to then head into the water trench and make his way back that we grasp that the story is not taking place in reality; bombing the narrative out and leading us to wonder how it could possibly resolve itself, and leaving one of two possibilities - it’s not real, or it is the byproduct of the motel having been built on some Native American burial grounds (or some such thing), and as the story goes on, as absurd as the latter point is, I’d take it willingly over the former.
Each victim is accompanied by a hotel key, inching up toward the number ten. Some deaths such as Lou’s are fascinating; as Ginny breaks down in the bathroom and he pounds on the door, demanding to be let inside, then begging for his life. Ginny can’t tell the difference. Others are cheap, one as a throwback to Night of the Living Dead when Alice, Ginny, and the boy all get in the car next to the gas station which explodes.
As the plot is no longer able to accommodate the absurdity and as each character is more or less accounted for at any particular moment, we realize there is no identifiable answer. The question looms larger and larger until it finally pops and we’re taken back to the Malcolm Rivers hearing who disappears and is replaced by Edward, completely confused over what’s going on. His psychiatrist holds up a mirror and he sees his actual Pruitt Taylor-self and freaks out, and the judge realizes how disturbed the man actually is. He stays the execution and instead transfers him to a new maximum security prison.
We then cut to Paris - the one person who survived, who takes her money and buys an orange farm in Florida, living an idyllic life when she discovers the last key in the dirt. She looks to her left and there’s Timmy, holding a cultivator and stabbing her in the neck and the film cuts to him at the hotel, responsible for each of the murders and for just a second, I thought - maybe I had it wrong. Maybe Malcolm Rivers had actually killed all these people as a boy and was reliving the nightmare again and again as each of the victims.
But then you spend three seconds more considering how this could possibly occur - how he could shove a baseball bat down a grown man’s throat; cut off a woman’s head; somehow trigger an explosive device in a car; or the fact that he didn’t push or drive the car that killed his step dad. It could’ve worked under other circumstances, but the commitment to such grand murders prevented it. In the end, the whole story was a fabrication; existing within the mind of a deranged schizophrenic murderer who’s lost the line between reality and fantasy. At best, he might have been witness to some grueling murders and is stuck reliving it in his mind.
Given the inspiration from Agatha Christie’s novel, you can’t help but wonder if this shift to Malcolm Rivers was either a part of reshoots. Perhaps the original source material and various adaptations never abandoned reality for some type of psycho-fantasy. Maybe Timmy was indeed suppose to be the original killer and the perhaps test screenings failed the bullshit test and they scrambled for a better resolve. Rather than risking the less plausible, they took it straight out of reality altogether.
The film is near perfect for the first half regarding pop-thriller cinema, providing that uncanny feeling of mystery and suspense, leaving you unsure whether it’s supernatural or actual. As with any great story - I’m left thinking of What Lies Beneath (2000) - the exercise is preserving that tension while wrapping it up appropriately. Neither Hitchcock, nor De Palma allowed such a simple and cheap explanation to topple their thrillers. It leaves you wanting a remake done right. Identity is perhaps the greatest movie with the worst ending in cinematic history.
BELOW: Running on all cylinders at this point
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