Film: Anatomy of the Mind-Screw

Identity and the tradition of the Hollywood twist

John Cusack (left) and Ray Liotta in the 'mind-screw' thriller, Identity.

There's a difference between knowing that things on screen aren't always as they seem and being flat-out manipulated. Moviegoers usually appreciate the former. A little twist, like Darth Vader revealing himself as Luke's father at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, is what audiences expect and like. Flat-out manipulation is more along the lines of Kevin Spacey's performance as crippled Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. At the end of the film, Kint loses his limp, signifying that everything told and shown during the film was complete bunk. As he straightened up and flashed that knowing smirk, Spacey in many ways ushered in the modern age of the mind-screw.

Imagine a film that completely changes its tone midway through the story. Think of a story that abruptly ends one plot line for another or in some way bends the facts to the point of breaking. That's a mind-screw. That's The Usual Suspects, and that's what the cast and crew of the thriller Identity say lies at the heart of their suspense movie.

"I've seen the Hitchcock movies and read the Agatha Christie books, so I know the standard," says John Cusack, who plays Identity's everyman hero. "And then you think, this is a Hollywood movie, so I'll figure this out. You just try to guess what's going to happen, because you usually think you can. On page 30, I thought I had it pegged. Then on page 50, I thought I had it pegged. But I never did."

The set-up is simple enough. Ten strangers descend upon a motel in the middle of nowhere, trapped by a driving storm outside. Over the course of the night, one by one, they turn up dead. Who or what is killing them, and can they discover what links them together before it's too late?

Director James Mangold has tackled all types of stories before: the female melodrama of Girl, Interrupted (1999), the romantic comedy of Kate & Leopold (2001) and the police drama, Cop Land (1997). Tackling the "mind-screw" was something new. He agrees that there was a definite high-mindedness behind the film. He also wanted to make Identity appear on the surface like a run-of-the-mill slasher film. This lowbrow packaging became a great set-up for his shocking punch line.

"Thrillers and horror films are the only genres where the studio, the general public, the core audience, everybody out there wants formal invention," he says. "They actually come to the movie wanting you to show them something they've never seen before. You can't always say that about a romantic comedy or drama or any other kind of film. In this genre, the audience wants you to top or undo or invert things that have gone before."

Mangold, whose career has led him through nearly every genre except horror, says he salivated over the chance to make a qualified entry into the mind-screw movie hall of fame. The Sixth Sense, The Matrix and Fight Club along with The Usual Suspects served as examples of how to effectively manipulate the audience without turning them off. That delicate balance was exactly what Mangold was after. One of the tricks, he learned, was to keep the action moving quickly.

"Movies like this are like magic shows," he says. "They're not supposed to hang out and sit there for your analysis while running. I think they're supposed to be a wonderful ride that you think about afterward."

Another trick was casting. Producer Cathy Conrad, who's also Mangold's wife, argues that casting Identity is integral to its success. She says the "whodunit" aspect of the film required each actor to appear dangerous and capable of being a killer.

"You never want one person to be winning the race, being so recognizable and having people planting their interest in one person in particular," she says. "You want to keep the ball bouncing, showing a little of him and a little of her. It's a delicate dance of distributing energies and making sure there's something interesting and cool about each face on that screen."

Look at Identity's impressive ensemble, says Ray Liotta, who plays a cop in the film, and you know that something's afoot. He says it took a good cast to pull off the dupe without making it cheesy.

Having a secret also requires the film to somehow keep that secret — just ask the makers of The Crying Game. That's why everyone involved in Identity asks everyone they speak to not to reveal the film's key twist. After all, the film is literally and figuratively about a secret.

"We all did this because we want people to go in and have fun with the puzzle of the movie and enjoy the experience of trying to solve it, too," Conrad says. "Giving too much away was never part of the equation."

Cusack says he thinks it will work. He believes that today's audiences are smart and that they don't want the same formulaic stuff over and over. Having appeared in a few mind-bending films — notably Being John Malkovich — during his career, he says it can work.

For his money, Mangold thinks the mind-screw might be on the decline. As with all things in Hollywood, its shelf life is only a few hours old. But he says he was glad to make one while he could.

"I think we might be reaching the end of the mind-screw," he says. "I sound like such an establishment figure saying, 'Oh, I think we're getting to the end.' How many years have people said music can't get any louder? People keep finding a new way." ©

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