by Lucius Shepard
May 16, 2003
In 1995 director James Mangold made his first feature film, Heavy, a quiet, poignant study of an overweight chef coping with unrequited love and the death of his mother, a role played with wonderfully, painfully stated inarticulateness by Pruitt Taylor Vince. The movie earned Mangold a Hollywood gig and since then its been all downhill. His first Hollywood feature, Copland, turned what started out to be an interesting psychological portrait into a bloody shoot-em-up. Next came Girl Interrupted, essentially a clumsily mounted pity party for rich-girl neurotics. This was followed by the eminently forgettable Meg Ryan-Hugh Jackman romantic comedy, Kate and Leopold. Now we have Identity, an overwrought slasher flick that works a riff on Agatha Christies Ten Little Indians, then devolves into a bad horror movie, and then devolves further into something that many reviewers are loathe to discuss, fearing it would be a spoiler. Why their reticence, I have no idea. Unless you had to retake shop in high school, after viewing the opening sequence, which details the pathology of spree killer Malcolm Rivers (an older, heavier Pruitt Taylor Vince) and details his slaughter of a number of guests at a motel, theres truly little left to figure out . . . though I did have a few questions concerning the picture.
Like how come Ray Liottas wearing so much eyeliner?
If Amanda Peets character is always so cold, why doesnt she put on a jacket?
Jake Buseys enormous teeth are on constant display in a grin that would not be out of place on a Kentucky Derby winner . . .I guess thats not really a question, but all through the film I kept imagining him wearing a horseshoe of roses.
The movie opens with Rivers psychiatrist and lawyer rousting a judge out of his bed on a dark and stormy night (the mother of all dark and stormy nights, actually), claiming they can prove that their client, Rivers, who is due to receive a lethal injection in twenty-four hours, was insane when he committed the murders and thus cannot legally be executed. As they wait for the judge, Mangold switches story tracks to a ruinous desert motel that makes the Bates Motel look like a Hyatt Regency, where ten people are in process of being stranded by a flash flood. Joining the motel manager, a creepy woman-hating, knife-carrying individual named Larry (John Hawkes), in this less-than-splendid isolation are Ed (Jon Cusack), a burnt-out ex-cop turned chauffeur who is driving a faded ex-movie star of the 80s, Caroline Suzanne (played appropriately enough by faded ex-movie star of the 80s Rebecca de Mornay), to LA. Distracted by Ms. Suzannes strident complaints, Ed runs over the wife of George York (John C. McGinley)George, wifey, and their son have stopped to repair a flat tire improbably caused by running over a spike-heeled shoe that has fallen out of a suitcase belonging to Paris (Amanda Peet), a hooker who has quit the life and is heading to Florida to live her dream of owning an orange grove. Next to arrive are Ginny (Clea Duval) and Lou (William Scott Lee), newlyweds who are already having marital problems, and, finally, along comes Rhodes (Liotta), a hard-charging cop and his prisoner, serial killer Robert Maine (Busey), whom Rhodes is conveying to prison.
Scarcely have the principals assembled, when they begin to die gruesomely. Ones head is discovered tumbling in a drier; another has a baseball bat jammed down his throat. To generate tension surrounding the murders, Mangold introduces them with ineptly contrived zoom shots and loud swooshesit seems our director believes that maniac killers are prone to make such windy noises when perpetrating their foul deeds. With each body a room key is found, numbering from one up in consecutive order, and this leads the survivors to speculate that one of them may be the killer.
Gee, ya think?
In an attempt to cloud the issue, Mangold and screenwriter Michael Cooney (Jack Frost) throw out a number of red herrings. Turns out Motel Hell is built atop an Indian burial ground. Youve seen Poltergeist, so you know what that portends. Then theres the fact that Robert Maine has escaped. Serial killer on the loose. Oh-oh. Then theres the other fact that John C. McGinley has made a career out of playing dangerous whackoshe cant be as normal here as he seems, can he? And then theres Larry and his penchant for sharp pointy objects. But Mangold defuses his own fishbombs by casting in the role of George Yorks son a little boy whose sinister fleshiness puts one in mind of Laird Cregar, the porcine villain of The Lodger, a 40s Jack the Ripper film, and, coincidentally, also brings to mind the jowly face of Pruitt Taylor Vince.
After a couple or three murders, one of the characters opines that this all seems a whole lot like a movie she saw once in which ten people were stranded at some rich guys mansion on an island and were picked off one by one. Maybe, she suggests, we have something in common, something that connects us, and that will explain why the killer is picking on us. Shortly thereafter they discover that they were all born on May 10. It was at this point I began to realize I was watching a movie that was going to rival Dreamcatcher for stupidity. Which is odd. Because its apparent that what Mangold intended was to turn the horror genre on its ear, to smarten it up, to make it cool and post-modern and all that neat stuff, whereas he ended up making a picture that conjures memories of that awful TV show Dallas, on which everything that happened during one season proved to be a dream. When I caught Identity, those in the audience who hadnt figured out what was going on greeted the pictures ultimate revelation with groans and laughter and Oh-my-Gods. It turns out theres an honest-to-Jesus reason that the characters are uniformly unconvincing and the plot devices are ridiculous, but you just dont care about anything in the movie to be swayed by this cleveresque development. And though the Big Twist at movies end manages to make some sense of the plot, it falls far short of explaining everything. For instance, if youve been paying close attention here, you may have tumbled to the idea that said Big Twist involves Multiple Personality Syndrome. Well, Ive never heard of anyone with MPS whose personalities were so evolved as to have wildly different and particularized career tracks like, for instance, an ex-cop-turned-chauffeur, an aging movie actress, a normal family man and his normal wife, their freako kid, two arguing newlyweds, and so on. . . . If my giving this away annoys you, just remember Im doing my best to spare you my experience.
The lesson to be learned from this mess is that the best way to smarten up a horror movie is to forget clever and make it scary, a lesson Mangold failed to acknowledge, but one that Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, and of the upcoming zombie (theyre sort-of zombies, anyway) movie 28 Days Later, has clearly taken to heart. Shooting on digital video, armed with a fraction of the budget available to Mangold and actors whoalbeit talentedcannot be considered A-list, Boyle has made the best horror film Ive seen in years. Working from an excellent script by Alex Garland, author of the novel The Beach, Boyles opens his picture with animal-rights activists breaking into a laboratory with the idea of liberating the animals used for experimentation. There they encounter a group of chimps infected with a kind of super-rabies that has come to be called The Rage and inspires in its victims an incessant and uncontrollable urge to kill. Twenty-eight days later, a bike messenger, Jim (Cillian Murphy), wakes up in a hospital from a coma incurred during a traffic mishap to find the place deserted, ransacked, littered with debris, implying that something dreadful has happened while he was unconscious. The city appears as ravaged as the hospital. Wreckage everywhere. Newspapers lying about sporting headlines that scream EVACUATION and tell of martial law. The scenes of his wandering across a deserted Westminster Bridge and thence into an empty Trafalgar Square are unrelentingly chilling, stunning in their impact. Not long after his emergence, while sheltering at night in a church, Jim is attacked by a foaming, red-eyed creature, once human, and is chased out into the street, where he is rescued by two of the uninfected, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who instruct him on the rules of survival in this terrifying new world. Dont travel at night. Dont interact with anyone unless absolutely necessary. If someone youre with becomes infected, you have less than a minute to kill them or else they will kill and eat you. Its not long before this last rule is put to the testMark becomes infected and Selena is forced to execute him.
Theres nothing astonishingly new here, no ground that Outbreak and The Stand and George Romero havent already covered, though the speed and agility of Rage victims make a nice contrast to the sluggish, bungling creatures of Night of the Living Dead. 28 Days Later is essentially a genre B-movie, fraught with certain unsatisfying resolutions common to the form, yet it all seems worthwhile and fresh thanks to the wit and intellect of the screenwriter and director and cinematographer. Moving across the post-apocalyptic London landscape, Jim and Selena do battle with hordes of the infected, and eventually hook up with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter, Hanna (Megan Burns). When they hear a recorded broadcast urging uninfected citizens to make for the security of a military base near Manchester, they decide to risk what will surely be a perilous journey. Perilous, and incredibly suspensefula chase through a tunnel system is nearly unbearable in its tension. On reaching the base they discover that the army unit led by Major West (Christopher Eccleston) has its own sinister agenda.
Gritty, unendingly suspenseful, with several wonderful set pieces and a skillfully directed ensemble cast from among whom Naomie Harris is likely to break out as a legitimate star, 28 Days Later succeeds, by straying true to its genre roots, by treating them with a passionate respect, in doing everything that Identity tried to do by more-or-less abandoning them. Youd do well to save that ten-spot youve earmarked for Identity and use it this summer when 28 Days Later hits the theaters. Seeing it may not make you any wiser, but itll scare the bejesus out of you . . .and what more could you ask of a horror movie? James Mangold doesnt know.