Motel California

Killer whodunnit thriller couples smart noir with plenty of blood

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DIRECTED BY James Mangold

STARRING John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Jake Busey, Rebecca De Mornay, Amanda Peet

Opens June 27, Cert 15, 110 mins

The set-up is somewhere between classic noir, slasher flick and Agatha Christie. Ten disparate characters are forced to hole up in a ramshackle and isolated motel to escape a torrential rainstorm, only to get picked off one by one in James Mangold and screenwriter Michael Cooney’s crisply-paced and entertaining B-movie thriller.

Cusack’s a former cop working as a limo driver, and his passenger, De Mornay, is the archetypal, egocentric Hollywood starlet who’s seen better days. Liotta is a gruff corrections officer ferrying convict Busey to a pre-trial hearing and?speeding towards her dream life in Florida?Peet’s hooker out to escape her violent past. Also at the motel are a family who’ve been involved in a road accident, a young couple with a dark secret and the motel owner himself, nicknamed?get this?”Bates” by some of the guests who appears to have the darkest secret of all. As their numbers dwindle through a series of grisly murders, and the search for the killer and a motive becomes more urgent, Identity seems uncannily like a superior update of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. But Mangold’s unerring attention to detail and the clammy atmosphere engulf both viewer and characters, taking the premise somewhere else entirely, while the layers of deceit, coincidence and suspense lead to an ingenious pay-off that riffs on that jaw-dropping climax to The Usual Suspects. It seems that after the overrated Girl, Interrupted Mangold is back on fine form.

The claustrophobic setting helps bring out the best in Cusack and Liotta, who compete to be the dominant Alpha Male in the group, while Peet and De Mornay give smart, nifty performances. There’s a midway point where the film almost topples into farce but thanks to a neat change of tone Mangold pulls Identity back from the edge. The psyche under siege has been a recurring theme in Mangold movies, but it’s never been as easily deployed than in this smarter than average psychological thriller.


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