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Murder She Wrote: Majoring in Murder

. "Identity"

Not since "Psycho" has a motel provided the setting for such terror and helpnessness in the face of an unseen, rampant killer. But, this murder mystery is more Steven King than it is Alfred Hitchcock and the comparison points out the difference between a master story teller who sticks to some degree of plausibility for his dramatic effects, and that of a supernatural schlockmeister who pulls unseen demons out of the air to artificially contrive the scenario.

At first we have what appears to be a string of events out on the highway that strangely (but in some ragingly creative mind, possibly) brings together ten strangers to a remote motel for shelter from a rainstorm. While the string of related consequential events occur, writer Michael Cooney and director James Mangold start the ludicrous shenanigans with a side plot wherein a serial killer about to be executed is transported for a last minute hearing by a panel which includes his condemning judge and psychiatrist (Alfred Molina). This doctor has the temerity to suggest that the killer is a man of multiple personalities, the killer part no longer in the mix, and that he should be granted a reprieve. It's not just the killer who needs one.

Back to the motel, which is filling up with people from varied walks of life, each attending to their business, but getting to know each other as need and homicidal terror arises.

Back to the motel, the jittery manager (John Hawkes) is having a field day checking in his varied guests at $30 a pop. They include Ed, a limo driver-ex cop (John Cusack) and his ride, Caroline Suzanne, a fading TV actress (Rebecca DeMornay) who has to fight her studio for every perk; Robert Maine (Jake Busey in a patented role as a psychopath) transported by tough cop Rhodes (Ray Liotta); Paris (Amanda Peet), a purported prostitute on her way (alone) to a farm in Florida; newlyweds Ginny and Lou (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott) who are having marital problems already and don't sleep together; and a family whose wife-mother (Leila Kenzle) was hit by Ed during an out-of-control moment on the stormy highway. She is hanging on to life while doted upon by husband (John C. McGinley) and spookily silent young son (Bret Loehr).

These are not admirable people, but Ed (Cusack) is the adept one who leads us through the minefield of victims as each dies in their own peculiar way. But, as we strive for a pattern or a logical thread, and as we attempt to solve the whodunit nature of the storyline, the slowly diminishing number of survivors merely heaps up possibilities that are unacceptable as the serial killer for one reason or another.

Production standards on this film are as high as they come. The cast is superb and the mood for a murder thriller on the mark. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael trains his camera and low key lighting to cleverly enhance the tensions and mysteries. But the story is a cheat. I'm not going to give you the ending but, as you try to figure it out, remember that it's not an Agatha Christie yarn in which there are rules of recognizable human capability. These filmmakers are hung up on Steven King. More's the worse for the patron who values movies based on logic and a universe that can't be twisted on a desperate writer's whim.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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John Hawkes, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Cusack
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