Identity: On screen

Identity, a gripping psychological thriller in its own right, offers an unusual insight into one of the most misconstrued mental illnesses explored on film.

The film follows two seemingly unconnected plots – the trial of a serial killer and the mass killing of a group of ten people stranded at a motel. However, with a plot twist arguably as shocking as Fight Club, but largely more underrated, it is revealed that the motel is the metaphoric representation of the serial killer’s mind: the people isolated there are ten different personalities that cohabitate inside him. [Here’s my belated spoiler alert…you may as well keep reading now].

This revelation is exposed rather late in the film as Edward Dakota (John Cusack), the dark misunderstood ex-cop, now-limousine driver [a very accurate description – no embellishment], is informed he is one of the personalities of the serial killer, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Vince). In this confrontation Doctor Mallick (Alfred Molina), Malcolm’s therapist, explains to Ed that through therapy he has instigated the confrontation between the ten personalities at the motel. As he had expected this to result in violence, it did not take much research to recognise it as an unethical treatment, making Doctor Mallick a runner up to Zimbardo (of the Stamford experiment) for the poster boy for malpractice.

In order not to spoil this film past the point of no return, I will omit what Ed does with this knowledge when he returns to the motel. However, regarding the films portrayal of dissociative identity disorder (DID), there’s still some analysis to be done.

As a psychological thriller there are dramatised elements, but this depiction of DID still harbours some authenticity. The split personalities developed by someone with this disorder can vary hugely regarding their sex, race and intelligence. This is explicitly portrayed in Identity with the range of characters in the motel, varying from Timmy the mute child (Bret Loehr) to the convict Rhodes (Ray Liotta).

Furthermore, Identity arguably depicts how each of these personalities believe they have a fully-fledged life separate from their host personality: in the first two thirds of the film the personalities believe they are separate identities. Thus, the film’s title is a dead giveaway of the plot twist, so I am still not sorry for spoiling.

The origin of Malcolm’s disorder is also truthful of real cases: DID usually develops as a result of childhood trauma whereby the split personalities emerge as a defence mechanism to protect a person’s psyche from having to face the past ordeal. In the film, Malcolm’s childhood neglect by his mother, a sex worker, and his eventual abandonment in a motel is exposed as the triggering event. This movie indirectly highlights the importance of childhood experience in relation to mental development by depicting the extreme consequences of neglect and abuse.

However, this film contributes to the stigmatisation of mental disorders on screen. Fictional portrayals of mental illness are frequently gendered producing negative stereotypes: female mental illness is largely depicted in a hypersexualised light whereas men suffering from mental disorders are demonised as violent monsters. Identity, like many other films exploring DID, follows the trope of mentally ill males being psycho killers. Whilst this provides interesting material for a thriller, it further stigmatises an already villainised disorder.

Malcolm arguably comes across as a victim despite the chilling reveal of the personality who orchestrated the motel murders and despite his actual killing spree in the real world. Mental health has only recently been analysed with the same empathy attributed to people with physical disabilities, so it is surprising to note this undertone in a 2003 thriller. In my opinion, Identity is a film for a whodunnit-lover, slasher-fanatic, thriller-seeker but for a comprehensive and a more sensitive depiction of DID – look elsewhere.

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Rosey Battle

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June 2022
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