Identity (2003)

Dir. James Mangold

Written by: Michael Cooney

Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes


Identity has been quietly resting on my shelf for a decade, unwatched. It’s a disc that got mixed into my collection from a previous roommate at some point, and I have never had the urge to watch it. I saw Identity in the theater, with this same eventual roommate, no less, and I can remember both of us being wholly unimpressed with the movie, and with its prominent plot twist. In the years following up the success of The Sixth Sense and M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent couple of movies, it seemed like the game-changing plot twist was the flavor of the month for Hollywood studio thrillers, and I think that some fatigue from the overwhelmingness of the trend led to my total dismissal of Identity. I largely forgot about the movie until discovering it in a box of DVDs when I moved into the house that I’ve been living in for the last six years, and in the time between then and my decision to start this project, I only thought of Identity, cursorily, as a real-life version of “The Three,” Donald Kaufman’s asinine screenplay from Adaptation. in which all three principal characters are revealed to be the same person. Since starting this project, however, Identity has loomed large in the back of my mind as a movie that I was both anticipating and dreading screening and writing about. I fully anticipated Identity to be, at best, a generic and predictable thriller not worthy of the collected talent that it assembles, and, at worst, a derivative and implausible B-movie driven by a third act plot twist it doesn’t earn. Maybe it was the low bar that I had going in, but I was pleasantly surprised by Identity, and I found most of my remembrances of it from 15 years ago to be incorrect.

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Identity begins by introducing Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an inmate set to be executed for several brutal murders. Rivers’s legal team and psychologist, Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina), file a midnight appeal for a stay of execution, arguing a legal defense of insanity citing new evidence that has come to light in the form of a diary. The midnight hearing is assembled during a tremendous storm, and begins without Malick, who is being transported from prison. At the same time, a group of ten strangers become stranded at a roadside motel, forced to bed down for the night due to the storm. They include a former cop, Ed (Cusack), who is now working as a limousine driver, a Nevada state trooper, Rhodes (Liotta), who is transporting a convicted murderer, a prostitute on her way to a new life in Florida, Paris (Peet), and the hotel’s manager, Larry (Hawkes). The group have come together in spectacularly coincidental fashion, which is shown in a flashback, involving a family getting a flat tire from striking a loose high heel that flew out of one of Paris’s suitcases. The mother, Alice (Leila Kenzle), is struck by Ed’s limousine when he is distracted by his passenger, the actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca de Mornay). Ed brings the injured woman to the motel in search of a working phone, and while he is trying to get help for her, the rest of the group assembles at the motel. As they realize they are stranded for the night and begin to bed down, a killer starts to pick them off one by one, leaving motel keys with the bodies, counting down from 10 to 1. The group begins a paranoid hunt for the killer, and the bodies continue to pile up in rapid fashion, while at the same time the survivors begin to discover more inexplicable coincidences, such as the fact that they all share a birthday. Meanwhile, as the competency hearing continues, and Rivers arrives, the extent of his multiple personality disorder is revealed, and it becomes apparent that the events at the motel are the representation of the psychic trauma of Rivers’s multiple identities being dragged to the surface and vying for primacy in his mind. Dr. Malick makes contact with the Ed personality and urges him to save Rivers’s life by eliminating the personality that drove him to commit the murders, and the action returns to the motel for the film’s climax.

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While Identity certainly owes a massive artistic debt to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even going so far as to obliquely reference one of the novel’s many film adaptations, it still managed to feel relatively fresh to me. While the film’s revelation that all of the characters at the motel only exist inside of Rivers’s mind is a little bit predictable, Identity still managed to largely keep me interested and on my toes. The movie brings in the twist a little too early, but it leads up to it with a series of McGuffins and red herrings that I actually found to be pretty satisfying. It’s a movie that strives towards prestige, and though it doesn’t quite achieve the level of a top thriller, it’s a workmanlike effort that I found to be much more enjoyable than I ever would have imagined. Mangold turns the desert motel into a disorienting funhouse maze, utilizing canted angles, tight shot framings around corners and down narrow hallways between the buildings, and the persistent rain and gloom, to disrupt the audience’s sense of visual continuity of space. While the mystery isn’t particularly compelling after it’s revealed that the characters are all psychic projections, up to that point, the film’s visual style and a few well-timed surprise killings had me heavily invested in discovering the killer’s identity. I had the knowledge that Ed, Rhodes, Paris, and the others are all just manifestations of Rivers’s psyche tucked away in the back of my mind, but the taut editing and brisk storytelling of the first segment at the motel all but made me forget that the reveal was coming.

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The film’s cast, which is surprisingly stacked for a movie of this sort, also does a lot of heavy lifting in making Identity a more successful film than it otherwise might have been. I don’t think that either Cusack or Liotta, who are the leads of this deep ensemble, are particularly inspired in their performances. Both of them are as solid as they typically are, but neither really brings much new to the table, either. The supporting cast, however, comes on strongly, with Peet doing a nice job of maximizing her role as the film’s third lead. She’s steely and resilient, managing to give some depth to a character that is probably a bit underwritten. We don’t get many specific details about Paris’s back story, but Peet’s performance gives hints towards the type of life that she’s running from. John Hawkes, who I had completely forgotten was in the movie, is the real gem in the supporting cast, though. While his character seems at first to be relegated to a comic relief role, his story is fleshed out and given a surprisingly dark makeover halfway through the film, and the shift in how the audience perceives his character from that point is a testament to Hawks’s versatility as an actor. He goes from being agitated and put-upon to eluding a quiet menace after it’s revealed that he isn’t actually the hotel manager, but that he found the manager dead one day and assumed his responsibilities while hiding his body in the freezer. All the while, though, he imbues Larry with the sympathy-evoking beaten dog qualities that are so common in Hawkes’s characters. The strong assemblage of veteran character actors that round out the cast, and the A-list stars in the film, help lift it above genre material and convincingly sell a movie that might otherwise have collapsed under the weight of a less-than-novel structure and narrative contrivance.

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I was actually really satisfied that I found myself to be a bigger fan of Identity that I had expected. I’ve written before that I don’t particularly enjoy writing about movies that I don’t like and that I find it difficult to produce quality writing about films that I don’t think are of a very high quality. I was totally psyched up to write about how much I hated Identity, but, luckily, I was able to avoid that and instead write about what a pleasant surprise it was that this movie wasn’t total trash. Of course the movie has its faults. It really is fairly predictable, with its major twist being telegraphed from the beginning, but it packs in enough genuine surprises along the way that it makes up for the larger lack of mystery surrounding its central narrative. I don’t see myself returning to Identity anytime soon, and I wouldn’t really recommend that anyone go out of their way to see it, because it really is a pretty paint-by-numbers example of a thriller, but it’s a decent enough diversion. It’s the sort of movie that if I caught it on basic cable in another decade I would probably have forgotten about all over again, but I guess that could make the rediscovery that much more satisfying. There’s not anything being offered here that hasn’t been done before, and probably done better, as well, but the cast is solid and the atmospherics are actually quite well done. Identity isn’t the sort of twist movie that requires a lot of active thinking or reflection on the part of its audience, but it’s an entertaining enough ride if you want to turn your brain off for a while.

High Fidelity

High Fidelity (2000)

Dir. Stephen Frears

Written by: D.V. DiVencintis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg (From the novel by Nick Hornby)

Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Lisa Bonet


“Which came first, the music or the misery?” This maudlin bit of dialogue opens High Fidelity, and it came to be something of a mantra for me in my teen years. I imagine that there were quite a few young, nerdy, socially maladjusted misanthropes who took Rob Gordon’s words and neuroses to heart after seeing High Fidelity. It seemed like the perfect movie for me at 15 or 16 years old, justifying my obsessive interest in music, movies, and pop culture ephemera. Though Rob is certainly meant to be seen as a shallow, narcissistic protagonist, one who can even identify those qualities in himself, I consistently misread the film’s message as a young person. By my late teens, I think that I started to understand the film’s third act, in which Rob starts to accept some responsibility for his own shortcomings and becomes a better person and partner, but I still saw more of myself in the Rob of the early film, who is so wrapped up in the minutiae of collectorship and curation that he fails to fully form a personality for himself. Watching High Fidelity in my thirties is almost cringe-worthy, as it reminds me of my early attempts at romance, of the person who I was nearly twenty years ago, but it’s also a powerfully nostalgic trip that does provide some wistful smiles and laughs.

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The movie opens with Rob Gordon (Cusack), fresh on the heels of a break up with Laura (Hjejle), trying to take stock of his life and his failed relationships. On the cusp of middle age, Rob is more grown child than man, defining his personality and interpersonal relationships through his encyclopedic knowledge of music and pop culture. Rob has parlayed this knowledge into a job running his own record store, Championship Vinyl, where he spends his days trying to impress customers and one-up his fellow music-nerd employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). Rob’s self-examination takes the form of an exhumation of his loves and losses, Top Five style, as is his wont throughout the film. We see Rob grow from an immature, elitist, young hipster, into an immature, cynical, older hipster and along the way meet some of the women who he blames for turning him into the self-loathing, but still self-obsessed, ball of neuroses and music trivia that he is. Eventually, Rob’s soul searching brings him back to Laura, and the two reconcile as she tries to rekindle not only the spark in their relationship but in Rob’s personal life, as well. High Fidelity finishes up with a conventionally happy ending, but its always struck me as fraught with uncertainty, much like the ending of The Graduate.

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I’m probably being unfair to Rob as a protagonist, but that’s only because I can sometimes see so much of my younger self in his character. As I mentioned, High Fidelity was an early touchstone for myself, and I embraced its esoteric hipster-dom. It was the movie that made me feel ok to be as wrapped up in music and movies as I was as a 15-year-old kid, but I think that it also gave me a pass to become too maudlin and too self-involved for a while in that period of my life. There’s only so long that you can substitute depression, teenage alcoholism, and a record or movie collection for an actual personality. Rob is a prick when we meet him, a prick in his own remembrances, and he remains at least a bit of a prick until the movie’s end, when he does manage to, at least partially, redeem himself by embracing a more healthy, positive outlook on life. I think that I stopped watching High Fidelity almost entirely after my high school years simply because it was too difficult to stomach Rob’s elitism and moping. His attitude reminded me of a phase of development I was desperately trying, and often failing, to grow out of. Ironically, if anything, I probably became more of an ivory tower elitist in college than I had been in high school, although I couldn’t see that particular forest for the trees of academia that were surrounding me.

But still, uneasy self-revelations aside, I found a lot to enjoy about High Fidelity watching it for the first time in at least a dozen years. While Rob might not be an easy guy to root for or sympathize with, High Fidelity is an easy movie to settle into and enjoy. It’s light and funny, it has a fittingly great soundtrack, and the grand gestures of love depicted in the movie seem perfect to its target audiences of young people and hopelessly romantics. I’ve never been a big fan of traditional romantic comedies, but High Fidelity injects enough pessimism and cynicism into its saccharine core that it avoids turning my stomach. The movie walks the line between loathing and loving, and it depicts the balance between the two sentiments as existing within all of Rob’s relationships, including the one that he has with himself. That seems like a much more honest depiction of love to me than most romantic comedies of the early 2000s were peddling. By the film’s end, Rob and Laura are in love again, and, while it’s not difficult to envision a future where they really do share a fairytale happy ending, it’s more likely that their relationship will continue to be defined by the careful balance of their very different, but complimentary, personality types. Throughout the film, Rob’s relationship with Laura was shown as having elements of humor, affection, contention, and understanding, depths that clearly aren’t represented in any of the previous relationships that he posthumously examines for clues as to his failings. That depth is what builds a strong and lasting relationship. I like that High Fidelity depicts this sort of relationship as a continuous work in progress. It feels genuine and affirmational, especially when that work leads to an ecstatic moment such as the one depicted in the film’s musical finale where Rob proposes to Laura. It’s a really good scene and it feels like a great payoff for the cast of characters who have all grown in some way.

high fidelity 8I’d also kind of forgotten what a pleasure the supporting cast of High Fidelity is to watch. Jack Black’s performance in the movie always sticks out in my head, and certain line deliveries of his tend to pop up in conversation for me still, but I had forgotten how much of his humor is drawn from the perfect interplay between his character, Barry, and Todd Louiso’s Dick. The two actors are perfectly paired, with Louiso embodying the introverted, nerdy stereotype of the record obsessive, while Black’s Barry is the brash, know-it-all music nerd. I’ve known several people who fit into both sides of this stereotype, and the actors chosen are perfect for their roles. Louiso lurks quietly in the background of scenes, mumbling lines both pithy and sincere, and, seemingly in compensation, Black’s mania is ratcheted up to 11, with the actor dancing and bouncing through the record store, while bursting into gleeful song. Both characters are genuine and fun, and it’s a pleasure to watch them grow a little bit throughout the movie, with Dick finally getting a date with his crush and Barry finally getting to sing in a band, by the film’s end.

On a similar note, Lisa Bonet deserves acclaim for her role as Marie de Salle, a musician whom Rob develops a crush on while he and Laura have split up. Bonet also feels genuine, tapping into her sensuality and performative streak when Marie is on stage, but revealing a natural, fun side to the character when she’s off it. Marie feels real in a way that none of Rob’s previous girlfriends have, and I attribute much of that to the inherent warmth in Bonet’s performance. She exudes coolness, but also caring, seeming to develop a real connection with Rob in just a short period of time. She also nails her performance scenes, and the cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” still sticks in my head sometimes. Overall, I think that High Fidelity shortchanges most of its female characters because they’re being imagined through the prism of Rob’s post-breakup mindset, but Marie de Salle is allowed to exist fully on her own terms as a character, and Bonet brings that character to life vibrantly.

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I found this rewatch of High Fidelity to be something of a mixed bag, which is a fairly common theme among the movies in this project. Sometimes art that we love when we’re young doesn’t age so well, but High Fidelity is largely as I remember it, for better and for worse. I suppose that it’s fitting for me to have such a nostalgic affection for a movie that is so obviously steeped in nostalgia already. The laughs and the funny characters are just as I remember them from so long ago, but part of those characters being just as I remember them means that I’ve also largely outgrown them. A movie that I used to strongly identify with has become one that I merely enjoy, and even then I doubt that High Fidelity is a movie that I’ll be pulling off the shelf again any time soon. When it’s good it’s really good, and it still brings a big smile to my face, but the movie also feels incredibly dated, not just in its content but in its style, as well. High Fidelity has more in common with studio romantic comedies from earlier than it does with newer, more interesting movies like Her. This isn’t a terrible thing, because High Fidelity largely delivers on the promises of its genre, and, as I mentioned, I think it presents a realistic and relatable portrayal of romance, but it does mean that the movie was far less influential than I probably felt like it was, or should be, when I was 15 years old. That’s probably a good thing, though.

Better Off Dead

Better Off Dead (1985)

Dir. Savage Steve Holland

Written by: Savage Steve Holland

Starring: John Cusack, Diane Franklin, Amanda Wyss, Curtis Armstrong


It’s probably not surprising, as I did most of my collecting of movies as a teenager, but a good portion of my collection was, at one time, teen movies and teen romantic comedies. I was a devotee of John Hughes, even going so far as proudly displaying a Breakfast Club poster in my bedroom when I was in high school. I think it’s natural when a person is young and still trying to develop their identity to look to the teen archetypes that Hughes often traffics in and feel a kind of kinship. I also think that it’s natural that once one is a bit older they can look back at some of those characters and recognize that they’re fairly empty tropes. This isn’t to disparage Hughes’s output, as he’s made some classic films and I still enjoy watching many of them, but I don’t feel the sort of kinship to any of the young protagonists that I used to. The only Hughes-directed movie that I still own is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, copies of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off having been lost or left behind somewhere along the line. Better Off Dead, however, is the one teen comedy from that era that I can still relate to as an adult, and it’s one of the few of its genre that have remained in my collection. I feel that Better Off Dead is such an essential part of my collection that, upon the initiation of this project, when I discovered that the disc for the movie was missing from the case, I felt that I had to purchase it again on Bluray, just so I could watch it again and write about it.

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The film’s plot is fairly generic at its core, but Better Off Dead has a pitch dark and quasi-surreal sense of humor that most other teen films lack. Lane Meyer (Cusack) has two great loves in his life entering senior year of high school, downhill skiing and his girlfriend, Beth (Wyss). Lane loses out on both at the beginning of the film, as Beth cruelly dumps him for the captain of the ski team, Roy (Aaron Dozier), at the ski team tryouts. Seeing his high school social life crumbling, Lane decides that he is probably better off dead, but finds himself hilariously inept, even at suicide. Since he’s unable to off himself, and encouraged by his friend Charles (Armstrong), Lane decides to ski the K-12, a treacherous, possibly even lethal, run, in hopes of winning back Beth’s affections. Predictably, Lane fails miserably at his attempt to conquer the mountain, and his life continues to be a cycle of disappointment and adolescent frustration. That all starts to change when Lane meets Monique (Franklin), a French foreign exchange student who is living with the Meyer’s neighbors. Monique agrees to train Lane to ski the K-12 and the two develop a friendship. The film ends with a climactic race between Roy and Lane, in which Lane finally triumphs over his rival. When he crosses the finish line on one ski, Beth rushes to greet Lane, but he brushes past her, choosing Monique instead.

If you take out the failed suicide attempts, the plot to Better Off Dead reads like a fairly typical teen comedy of its time. It even slots in to a strange subgenre of the teen movie that was popular in the mid-late 1980s that featured skiing and partying as a pretext for hijinks and romance to ensue. However, Savage Steve Holland’s unique comedic sensibilities make this film stand out from others of its era. Better Off Dead was Holland’s first feature, and it is based on an actual breakup that led him to a hilariously botched suicide attempt, a la Lane Meyer. In real life, Holland was able to see the absurdity of his situation as he was sitting under a broken pipe, from which he had tried and failed to hang himself, water cascading onto his head as his mother yelled at him for damaging the pipe. He took that experience and began collecting other humorously bad ways to try to kill yourself, as the concept for Better Off Dead germinated. The end result is a film that is darkly hilarious and that feels emotionally genuine without employing the types of schmaltz that teen films sometimes resort to. The film features memorably absurd side plots and a cast of characters too whacky to truly be real, but just barely so. The film’s unique humor and the perpetually set upon Lane’s struggle to cope in the face of the insanity that surrounds him are the reasons that the film still resonates with me when others of its genre have faded off.

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As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I was a big John Cusack fan in high school. High Fidelity and Say Anything were staples in my rotation, but I was unaware of the early Cusack film Better Off Dead until my friend Bill played it for me on VHS when we were probably about 16 years old. The film wasn’t as contemporary or as commercially successful as those others, but it’s the Cusack movie that I’ve watched the most as an adult by far. I was instantly enamored with the movie’s offbeat sense of humor. It was a totally different type of comedy than I was accustomed to at the time and I loved the unrepentant absurdity of the film. Better Off Dead is one of the few comedies that I’ve found to retain its humor despite at least a dozen repeated viewings. The film’s central comedic conceit, that Lane is so unbelievably inept that he cannot even find a way to properly end his own life, is funny, but the side plots and the supporting characters are probably the film’s most memorable comedic elements. Who can forget Lane’s younger brother Badger (Scooter Stevens), a deviant genius who constructs working lasers and rocket ships and seduces older women, despite never speaking in the film, or Lane’s mother (Kim Darby) who, throughout the film, makes creations from Better Housekeeping magazine recipes that look increasingly less and less edible? These characters, grounded as they are in recognizable reality, but spun out to the limits of plausibility, give the film its unique and memorable tone.

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Cusack, himself a teen when the film was shot, is solid as Lane Meyer. The charisma and chops that would help him become one of Hollywood’s most consistent and successful leading men of the last 30 years are on display here. Anyone watching the film as an adult can recognize the world-weariness that Cusack displays as Lane is humorous in its desperation, but to a teenage viewer it can feel relatable and real. Lane’s only beginning to experience life, but he feels he’s already seen its pinnacle. The maudlin, mopey performance that Cusack turns in feels like a template for many of the characters he would portray over the next decade, which isn’t really a criticism. Cusack was better at playing that sort of lovelorn sadsack than anyone else at the time, and Better Off Dead allows him to do so in a film that points a self-reflexive lens on that character and chooses to laugh. Lane may be a precursor to the more iconic Lloyd Dobler who Cusack would later portray in Say Anything, but he’s also a more interesting and realistic character.

Better Off Dead and its follow up, One Crazy Summer, would be the only features that Holland would direct. He has enjoyed a long career directing in television, mostly in children’s programming, with his animated series Eek! The Cat enjoying mainstream success in the mid-1990s. I do wonder if Holland wouldn’t have had a longer career in Hollywood had he not run afoul of John Cusack after they finished working on Better Off Dead. Reportedly, the two had a falling out after Cusack saw the final cut of the film which he felt made him look ridiculous, and the relationship has never been repaired and the film has enjoyed cult-classic status, but it has never garnered the mainstream recognition it deserves. I often find that there seems to be a generational quality to appreciating Better Off Dead. Most people my age or slightly older recognize and appreciate the film’s iconic quotes and characterizations, while I haven’t encountered many people younger than myself who seem familiar with the film. While it is almost universally fondly remembered by those who have seen it, Better Off Dead falls outside the pantheon of classic 1980s teen comedies. Despite that, it is well worth tracking down and checking out if you haven’t seen it.

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As I wrote, I felt so compelled to rewatch and write about Better Off Dead that I purchased a new copy of the movie to replace the DVD disc that had somehow gone missing from its case. That hasn’t been the case with every disc that has turned up missing in my collection. Since starting this project, I found out that my copy of American Psycho was missing. I had the case, but no disc in it. I decided that I wasn’t as interested in revisiting and writing about that movie, however, so I decided not to replace it, especially since the case that was on my shelf didn’t correspond with the original copy of the movie that I had bought on DVD in high school. Somehow, I had gotten my original copy switched up with a former roommate’s “Unrated Edition” copy. I don’t know why, but for some reason that made me much less inclined to include American Psycho as a part of this project. I loved the movie 15 years ago, and I still like it a lot. It’s an interesting satire and it features a star-making performance by Christian Bale, but it isn’t included in this project. Here are some films that I have owned in the past that I have since parted ways with that I wish I still owned so I could include them in this project. I will not be repurchasing any of these for inclusion.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

I am one of the few proponents of this film that I know. I was probably just young enough to be taken in by this fairytale. Had I been any older, or had my cynicism been as fully developed as it is now, I likely would have scoffed at the film, but I saw it in the theater and loved it immediately. I bought it on DVD and I watched it a lot. A.I. is so stylish, and even if it doesn’t fulfill on all of its promise, it’s at least interesting as a historical artifact as it’s the last film that Stanley Kubrick ever worked on. He and Spielberg share directing credits on the film, and the blend of their unique visual and narrative styles is fascinating, even if Spielberg’s influence is the dominant mode. I haven’t seen this movie since probably 2005 and I wish I could reevaluate it.


The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather II (1974)

The Godfather and its sequel are obvious classics of American cinema, and they’ll be noticeably absent from my reviews. I first saw The Godfather when I was 12-years-old on a double VHS copy that I borrowed from the library. I watched it three times in the week that I was allowed to keep it. Eventually, when I decided I wanted to more seriously pursue an education and, hopefully, a career in film, I often told people that it was the influence of The Godfather that had led me in that direction. I was obsessed with the movie as a teen to the point that I had memorized large chunks of dialogue from the film and could recite them on command as a sort of pathetic, nerdy party trick. I owned the DVD box set of all three films in high school, but I didn’t take it to college with me and it doesn’t seem to be at my parents’ house anymore. I suspect that my younger sister took over possession of it sometime after I moved out.


Manderlay (2005)

The second in Lars von Trier’s still incomplete “Land of Opportunities” trilogy. Manderlay follows up Dogville, and continues with that film’s experimental, spare visual style. It also explores similar themes as the earlier film. I have a love/hate relationship with von Trier, and Manderlay was one of his more difficult films for me to wrap my head around. I first saw it with my friend, Ben, at the Regent Theater when it was released. Shortly after giving a presentation on Dogville in a class in college, I lent my copy of Manderlay to a classmate who hadn’t seen it, and I never saw it again. This is one that I’d really like to write about as I’ll be covering several von Trier films over the next few months.

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Say Anything (1989)

I don’t need to watch Say Anything again to be able to remember it perfectly. I watched this movie probably two dozen times while I was in high school. It perfectly intersected my filmic interests as a teen, and would have likely ranked up in my top five or ten movies at that time. I imagine my copy ended up with some girlfriend or another at that time, and that’s ok. It would be fun to go back and watch this movie as an adult, but it isn’t necessary.

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Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth is one of my favorite newer filmmakers. Both of his features, Primer and Upstream Color have been favorites of mine, particularly Primer. When I first saw that movie, I watched it three times in one day, and insisted that each of my roommates sit down to experience it with me when they got home from work. Obviously, I was eagerly awaiting Carruth’s follow-up, Upstream Color, which took several years to materialize. I saw the movie twice in the theater and purchased it on Bluray as soon as it was released. It was one of my favorite movies of 2013, and I tried several times to write a short essay about the film, but I never got it right. I still have several pages of screening notes from that time, but I let a friend borrow the movie and he lost it.

Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich


Being John Malkovich is quite a feat as a debut feature for its writer/director team of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. At the time of its release Kaufman was a relative unknown, toiling as a television writer, all of whose feature scripts had been rejected. Jonze was best known for his music video work, having directed iconic clips for artists as diverse as The Beastie Boys, Weezer, Björk, and Fatboy Slim. After the release of this film, however, both would become, if not household names, celebrities of the indie film world. Though its off-kilter premise and subtle sense of humor made the film’s release a slow build and prevented it from being a true commercial success, Being John Malkovich achieved near-universal critical acclaim, and more than made its budget back. Eventually the film would be rewarded with Academy Award nominations for both Kaufman and Jonze, as well as a nomination for Catherine Keener for Best Supporting Actress. As I alluded to in my post about Adaptation., Being John Malkovich announced its eccentric creative brain trust as major players in the film world going into the 21st century.

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I remember hearing about the movie when it was released, but I don’t think that I had any interest in seeing it. Being John Malkovich is a weird comedy for adults, and I was only 14 at the time. I didn’t know who John Malkovich was, and I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated or understood the film’s strange sense of humor if I had seen it when it was released. I know this because I didn’t appreciate it when I did see Being John Malkovich for the first time on cable a few years after it came out. I turned the movie on, near the beginning, on Comedy Central, and I can remember thinking to myself, “What the heck kind of weird movie is this?” I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch the whole thing, but if I did, it didn’t make an impact outside of its deep strangeness. At that time, probably 2001 or 2002, I had never been introduced to surrealism, and my tastes in comedy were certainly not geared towards something this strange and cerebral. Being John Malkovich was simply too much of a head trip for me and, to be fair, it probably was for many people on their first encounter.

The film follows Craig Schwartz (Cusack) a skillful but struggling puppeteer who is encouraged to go looking for a job by his wife, Lotte (Diaz), to bring in some income and take his mind off of his failures as an artist. He takes a job as a filing clerk for LesterCorp, which is located on the 7 ½ floor of a New York City skyscraper, home to an array of unusual characters, not least of which is Dr. Lester himself (Orson Beane). While working at LesterCorp, Craig develops a one-sided obsession with his coworker, Maxine (Keener). One day, Craig finds a small, hidden door in the filing office and opens it to reveal a dank, earthen tunnel. After crawling into the tunnel, Craig finds himself inside the consciousness of actor John Malkovich (playing himself), where he experiences the world through Malkovich’s eyes for 15 minutes before being unceremoniously dropped onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Craig shares this discovery with Maxine, in hopes of winning her affections by sharing this surreal and one-of-a-kind experience with her, and the two go into business together, selling the opportunity to inhabit Malkovich to sad-sack losers for $200 a trip. While a love trapezoid forms between Craig, Lotte, Maxine, and Malkovich, Craig finds a way to put his skills as a puppeteer into the service of controlling Malkovich’s body so that he can remain inside him indefinitely. And that is all before the movie starts getting really weird.

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I came back to Malkovich after seeing and loving Adaptation. I was a little older, and I was coming into the experience this time with a better handle on Kaufman’s unique voice. So, the pieces all fell into place for me, and I was able to appreciate the film on its own deeply strange, darkly comic terms. While I fell in love with Adaptation.’s lofty narrative ambition, I appreciated Being John Malkovich for its straightforwardness. Even though its plot is completely bananas, with each passing scene only serving to up the ante for strangeness, the film is played straight. Its humor is often deadpan, to the point of absurdity. It lacks the temporal shifts and narrative overlapping of later Kaufman films, opting instead for a linear structure. Characters don’t spend great periods of the film fretting over the metaphysical or cosmic implications of the bizarre scenario in which they’ve found themselves, as does the fictional Charlie Kaufman of Adaptation., they simply react as if finding a portal into a celebrity’s brain behind a filing cabinet is the sort of thing that could happen to any average office drone. That a film like Being John Malkovich could be described as straightforward at all is a testament to the skill of Kaufman and Jonze at crafting a believable, lived-in world, peopled with characters who feel like they could be real. Just like the 7 ½ floor, it seems like Being John Malkovich exists in a parallel world to the real one, where objects and people from the real world are easily recognizable, but the perspective is slightly skewed. The setting is familiar, but the characters’ relationship to it is somehow off.

That skewed perspective is reinforced by the choice of Cusack and Diaz as the film’s leads, as both actors are asked to play against type for their roles. Though often cast in comedies, Cusack was coming off of a run of serious dramas including Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil and The Thin Red Line, and according to reports he discovered Malkovich after asking his agent to find him the “craziest, most un-produceable script” he could find. Craig is a typical Kaufman protagonist, an artist who can’t reconcile his own ambitions and talents with the needs of the day to day world, and Cusack perfectly embodies the depression and malaise that come along with that character. In the film, Craig’s hair is long and greasy, he’s unshaven, and he is shabbily dressed, a far cry from the typically suave, handsome on-screen persona that Cusack is typically associated with. Although he is sometimes associated with the sorts of mopey, lovelorn character that he plays in Being John Malkovich, none of Cusack’s other comedic roles (save for possibly Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead, but we’ll get to that one soon enough) skew this dark. Craig’s attempts to maintain control over his life, the people in it, and the façade that he’s built up using Malkovich as a puppet push him to extremes.

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If Cusack is playing against type, Diaz is asked to make a full on transformation for the role of Lotte. Diaz had burst into the mainstream the year prior playing the titular character in There’s Something About Mary. After that role, she was poised to break out as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and she did, but Being John Malkovich marks a definite detour into fertile territory for her. Rather than capitalize on his lead actress’s fame, Jonze opts instead to make Diaz nearly unrecognizable in the film. Her signature blonde tresses are traded in for a brown, frizzy wig, while her figure is obscured behind lumpy sweatsuits. Everything about Lotte suggests a life of quiet desperation and Diaz’s subtle performance early in the film pull that off well. Her interactions with the chimp, Elijah, who is a part of the menagerie that Lotte has acquired in place of human children, are both comfortingly maternal and heartbreaking at the same time. While she is adept at portraying a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, Diaz’s best work comes later in the film when she reveals her desire for Maxine, and her insistence of returning to Malkovich’s head to experience life as a man. After her experience, Lotte declares herself to be transgender, and she gains satisfaction and self-actualization that she could have never gotten from Craig through her relationship with Maxine. At this point, Diaz’s performance becomes more assertive, and she takes on the role of the detective in the story, trying to uncover the mystery of the portal, rather than just exploit it, as Craig and Maxine do. Though Craig is, ostensibly, the film’s main character, it’s Lotte who does the most changing throughout the film, and in whose character some of the film’s most interesting themes about identity, consciousness, and sexuality are embodied.

Watching the film in 2017, I was struck by how progressive its attitudes towards sex, relationships, and gender identity were for a film that was released in 1999. While it was far from the dark ages, with respect to representation in media, 1999 was still a much less enlightened time for the general public with respects to sexual diversity. I’m sure that watching this movie must have marked the first time I ever encountered the word “transsexual,” though it didn’t register at all then. The idea of a woman entering into a man’s body, experiencing his view of the world, but maintaining a feminine spark that can still be seen through the eyes, as Maxine asserts that Lotte’s can, suggests a gender fluidity rather than a binary relationship. While this is obviously not the way that a transgendered person in the real world exists, the experience does lead to a revelation in Lotte, and a turning point in her character, as she articulates her own chosen identity and decides to actively pursue a happier and more satisfying relationship. Maxine and Lotte’s relationship, which is eventually achieved without a physical male surrogate, is the healthiest one in the film, and their ultimate production of a child and happily-ever-after ending stands in stark contrast to the loveless marriage that Lotte and Craig were both searching for an escape from. Craig, who attempts to be domineering in his relationship with Lotte and manipulative in his relationship with Maxine, is ultimately rejected by both and ends up alone, forced to watch their happiness through the portal, as it connects to the consciousness of Maxine and Lotte’s love child (conceived through Malkovich), Emily.

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The other aspect of the film that interested me on this rewatch was its treatment of celebrity. In 1999, famous actors and other celebrities existed in a world that was out of reach to the common person, accessible only through tabloid newspapers and gossip shows. Now, in an age of pervasive social media, the film’s portal into John Malkovich’s brain has been actualized through celebrities’ Twitter feeds, and Instagram videos. Fans now have a window into their favorite celebrities’ private lives. Being able to actually see through the eyes of, and effectively inhabit, a famous person would still probably be a valued commodity for some, but with access to our idols’ innermost thoughts and feelings on a stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed, it seems less attractive. Want to know what life is like for John Malkovich? Follow his Twitter feed and find out his pet’s favorite Starbucks order.

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Despite all of that, Being John Malkovich never really feels dated. The film is nearly 20 years old, but aside from the obvious advancements in technology, it is set in such a unique world that, rather than reflecting the time in which it was made, it seems to exist just outside of time. The film’s satire of Hollywood culture and the arts scene in general still ring true, and the film’s central theme of longing to break out of one identity and into another is a universal concept. Ultimately, underneath all of its cerebral meta- trappings, Being John Malkovich is a love story, and a story about the lengths to which these characters will go to make themselves feel lovable. If the film’s strange setting is a bit alienating, its emotional core, and the performances of its cast shine through and give the viewer something to cling to. I hadn’t watched this movie in many years, and while it still doesn’t rank among my very favorite Kaufman films, I could understand why it might for others. The building blocks of his future scripts are in place here, and many of the themes that he continues to explore in his films to this day are fleshed out quite well in Being John Malkovich. I’ll probably end up going back to this movie with more frequency than I have in the past.