At first glance the James Mangold thriller/horror/whodunit flick, Identity, is just a psychological twist on the classic Ten Little Indians. But it’s so much more besides. Identity is actually an extremely clever primer in postmodern psychology.
Let’s begin by noting one of the many distractions used in the making and marketing of Identity—Ed, the character played by John Cusack. Despite the impression cultivated in the advertisements for Identity, Ed is not the protagonist. He is, as described by Mangold, the “existential limo driver.”
Due to his multiple good-guy roles, John Cusack is a familiar friendly face. He is a perfect mask for Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the soon-to-be-executed killer who lurks inside (or is it outside?) the façade presented to the audience. The crucial scene in Identity occurs when Ed’s and Rivers’s faces morph back and forth on one body. This is the hinge by which the interior and exterior elements of the movie are joined. With the morphing scene, Mangold creates a striking visualization and turns the plot on its ear by graphically portraying the inside and outside of Rivers’s “head.”
In “Pulp Affliction,” an article he wrote for Fade In magazine 7.2, Mangold (last seen directing Kate & Leopold—quite the contrast) says that one of the things that most attracted him to Identity was that most of it takes place in one place, an isolated, rundown motel somewhere in California:
I’m a sucker for single-location movies and consider them a subgenre of their own. Among the great ones: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Lifeboat, and Rope.
These movies are great psychological studies—as is Identity—cleverly employing a single location to focus on the psychological workings of the protagonist. Identity does this brilliantly by employing the single location as a metaphor for Rivers’s head, as revealed in the morphing scene. The primary difference between Identity and other psychological dramas is that Identity accomplishes its goal graphically to illustrate the postmodern concepts of Jacques Lacan.
How do you get inside someone’s head? The great linguist and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein says that it is virtually impossible to understand someone’s thoughts. Wittgenstein classifies thought as “inner” and “outer.” He describes inner thoughts as those internally hidden (sometimes even from ourselves)—so they’re impossible for the outsider to understand. To use an old axiom, you can only understand someone after you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. This is the genius of Identity: We walk that mile by witnessing the events inside the motel, a.k.a. Malcolm Rivers’s head.
Wittgenstein and Lacan shared a deep fascination with the interaction between language and the personae. Lacan once said, “the unconscious is structured like a language,” and he combined linguistics and psychology to derive groundbreaking, controversial theories. Among Lacan’s more controversial claims is that everyone has multiple personalities, or selves. These selves are formed as a result of, and in relation to, social discourses—at school, at work, at voluntary organizations. You would, for instance, use or project a different self when with your parents than you do on the job.
Lacan warns that if we do not recognize the fact that we have multiple personalities we can develop pathologies such as severe paranoia. Malcolm’s last name is a good metaphor for his psychological problem: a “river” (his ego) whose tributary streams have merged too well, concealing the fact that the river consists of individual sources (his personalities).
But what about our coherent sense of self? Lacan’s says that we acquire this during what he terms “the mirror stage of development.” We visually construct it—as an illusion, a façade—sometime between six or eighteen months of age when we see ourselves in the mirror as one physical entity. For a while we cling to this illusion. Lacan says that our mother is a perpetrator of the façade. We yearn to stay bonded with Mom, and the only way to break free of this bond is via masculine, symbolic language. The power of language allows us to identify, and deal with, our multiple personalities.
Yes, this does sound Freudian. And it’s true Lacan was influenced by Freud. But there is an essential difference between Lacan’s bonding-with-Mom theory and the Oedipus complex. Whereas with Freud it was all about sex, with Lacan it’s all about language.
The concept that we all have multiple selves is admittedly more than a bit disconcerting. But then, this is postmodernism, and fragmentation is its very core. Postmodernists see fragmentation everywhere: in history (Michel Foucault), in the self (Lacan), and in society (Jean Baudrillard). Baudrillard uses the metaphor of society as a freeway, where we individuals are unconnected cars speeding along our separate paths. (You remember Baudrillard—in The Matrix, Neo has a hollowed-out copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation in his apartment.) Baudrillard’s freeway metaphor isn’t so bad though—at least each car is an undivided self, as opposed to the equivalent Lacanian metaphor, where each seat in the car would be a different self.
But enough with theory! How does this apply to Identity? Let’s return to the mind-as-a-motel metaphor. Recall that in Identity each victim (all of Rivers’s personalities) were assigned to a room. Remember the numbered keys that Cusak and company find after the victims’ deaths? You don’t get more masculine/symbolic than numbers. And the association of a number with a person with a room reinforces the visualization of the inner workings of Rivers’s mind as he plays with his multiple selves. The power of this association is explored visually as each personality is eliminated when their key/number is removed. As Wittgenstein explained, “We name things and then we can talk about them.”
The discovery that everyone in the motel has the same birthday (May 10) is the tip-off to the big secret: everyone is Rivers! Everyone is a separate personality, developed at some point in Rivers’s past: Cusack is the child in front of the mirror seeking order; Jake Busey is a convict and murder—just like Rivers now; Amanda Peet, an ex-prostitute (Rivers’s therapist—Alfred Molina—relates Rivers’s history, including his ex-prostitute mother); and Timothy, the mute little boy who’d suffered a terrible trauma in his past. Not understanding Lacanian psychology, Molina attempts to cure Rivers by eliminating all but the “true” personality, a mistake for which Molina pays dearly.
On first viewing, it may have seemed as if the last little plot twist (Timothy killing the Amanda Peet character with a garden trowel) was over the top. But it is in fact the last crucial step necessary for Rivers to reach Lacanian emotional maturity. He has to metaphorically kill his mother (Peet) or he will be stuck forever in the mirror stage. How appropriate for him to do so with a garden claw, an implement of growth. Notice also how bright and sunshiny is the Florida scene in Rivers’s head compared with the whole gray and stormy motel scene. The weather is beautiful, evoking a new planting season. Having symbolically killed off his mother, Rivers is now ready to take advantage of his newly acquired psychological maturity and grow some new personalities.