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“Identity” by James Mangold

Psychological disorders turning a person into a criminal often appear to be a consequence of deep childhood trauma, and the film entitled “Identity” and created in 2003 by director James Mangold illustrates one of such cases. The present paper is intended to analyze the motion picture, applying concepts and theories from the Psychology course.

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The film begins with the phone calling in the flat of the judge, who should urgently re-hear the case of Malcolm Rivers, a notorious serial killer, who has been already convicted to death. However, his caseworker, psychiatrist, Dr.Malick, discovers Rivers’ diary, which might prove that Rivers was not able to understand his actions when committing the murders and needed life-long therapy in a mental health institution. When the trial is about the start, the camera switches to the events taking place in a small and temporarily deserted motel.

Due to the natural disaster, ten people are forced to stay in the motel: Paris, a former prostitute, who is now beginning a new life, Lou and Virginia Isiana, who have recently married under the woman’s pressure, Caroline Suzanne, an actress, Ed Dakota, her limousine driver, the York family with little boy Timmy, Samuel Rhodes, a criminal impersonating policeman, and Robert Maine, a prisoner transported in handcuffs by Rhodes. The guests of the motel are killed one after another, and because the perpetrator is not caught, the focus of the group’s suspicion shifts from one man from the group to another. Finally, when the version of Maine’s responsibility is excluded, as the criminal is found stabbed, the survivors undertake an attempt to escape. At that time, Ed Dakota has a vision and sees himself on the trial, he tries to explain that his companions are in danger, but instead he is informed by Rivers’ psychiatrist that he, Edward, is merely one of the murderer’s identities. After Edward physically and mentally returns to the motel, he begins a clash with Rhodes and both men pass away as a result.

Paris, ostensibly the only survivor of the massacre, manages to get to the plantation she has dreamed about and involves in growing oranges. In parallel, Rivers, who has been discharged and received a more lenient sentence, is being transported to the mental asylum. Suddenly he begins to behave like Timmy, the Yorks’ boy, who appears to be the most violent and merciless identity born inside Rivers’ mind. Timmy comes to the plantation and murders, stating that prostitutes have no right to a second chance; at the same time, Rivers strangles Dr.Malick, his caseworker.

It is clearly stated in the film that the main villain, Malcolm Rivers, has a psychological disorder, or suffers from self-destructive and disruptive behaviors and emotional states, which have maladaptive effects and impair the person’s relationships and involvement in the community; Rivers’ dysfunction is referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder. By its definition, DID is associated with a condition in which the person displays multiple distinct identities and personalities with different traits, habits, and behavioral patterns (Kluft, 2003, p.72). The majority of the film’s characters (except for those displayed in the court settings) are positioned as Rivers’s identities, and through the patient’s eyes they seem to be separate personalities operating in the real-life environment, quarreling, suffering and leading their distinct lifestyles. All of them have certain plans and are moving towards selected destination; the only obvious similarities are the same birth date and family or first names coinciding with the names of the U.S. states. Therefore, Ginny, Edward, Rhodes, and the others are not merely roles, but rather integral self-concepts, or elaborated sets of roles (Petress, 2009, p.1) Most of Rivers’ identities are relatively harmless, as compared to Timmy, the little maniac, obsessed with the desire for taking human lives.

As revealed in the first scene of the motion picture, Rivers had a very difficult childhood with traumatic experiences, even covered by newspapers. In particular, he was abused by his only caregiver, his mother, who was a sex worker and often locked the child in the motel room without any facilities or opportunities to meet his basic needs (e.g. food, water) so that young Malcolm did not interfere with her work. In this sense, researchers contend that the victims of child abuse are more sensitive and predisposed to personality partition (Child Welfare, 2008, p.3; Kluft, 2003, p. 73). Child abuse can be defined as continuous verbal, physical, or psychological violence against the child, or the practice of leaving a child in a dangerous situation (Child Welfare, 2008, p.5). Kluft also draws a sequence of coping strategies, defined as cognitive or behavioral patterns which allow the person to cope with the psychological outcomes of a trauma (Kluft, 2003, p.73), which, as they are applied, create a path to the creation of the additionally alter ego. At first, the young child rejects the fact of mistreatment, but further develops a belief that he/she has deserved it.

This idea might lead the child to think that he/she wanted this abuse, he/she would be able to prevent it if he/she was a strong man or hurt someone by him/herself without being hurt. Other versions of coping strategies include such directions of reasoning as “I wish I could feel nothing”, “I wish someone could replace me”, “I wish someone would comfort me” (Kluft, 2003, p.73). As a rule, such dreams, thoughts, and desires are not confirmed in the real-life, so the disturbed child projects them into his/her inner world. Interestingly, the identities described by Kluft can be found in “Identity”; for instance, Timmy’s mother is a guardian or “comforting angel”, whereas Maine is a murderer, who presumably had similar disruptive experiences in his formative years. In the ending scene of the film, when Timmy appears before Paris, it becomes clear that these two characters, due to their survival of the massacre, are the most “realistic identities”, since Timmy crying that women of Paris’s occupation have no second chance represents young Rivers, who was not able to forgive his mother, whereas the personality named Paris, respectively, is associated with Rivers’ real mother. Timmy’s cruelty in this episode demonstrates that the most aggressive and blood-thirsty part of Rivers’ self, the young boy, would pay back to his mother even if she tried to change her life and bring him up in a more supportive way.

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It also needs to be admitted that all of Rivers’ identities are similarly deviant, as all of them have certain dark secrets. In particular, when trying to lock herself in the bathroom, Ginny confesses she has deceived Lou about her pregnancy to force him to give up his promiscuous lifestyle and marry her, so the former is a liar, whereas the latter fails to comply with the society’s moral norms. Both Rhodes and Maine are responsible for grave crimes. As Krohn and colleagues suggest, deviant and criminal behaviorRivers’ a s are learned by children and adolescents from their parents, primary caretakers, and the closest environment when their socialization is occurring (Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce and Radosevich, 1999, p.636). In this sense, practically all identities, generated by Rivers, reflect his “inner picture” of society and social characteristics, learned from his marginalized mother and her friends. Interestingly, the removal of the physical label (prisoner’s uniform) also allows Rhodes to avoid psychological and social labeling, as he is commonly perceived as a policeman only because he drives the police car and “handles” the criminal according to the rules (i.e. puts handcuffs of Maine and isolates him). Thus, labeling, defined as a complex of expectations and beliefs, associated with the person’s perceived social status (Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce and Radosevich, 1999, p.638), is in many cases based upon purely physical characteristics and aspects.

As one can conclude, although the film “Identity” appears to display the subjective picture seen by the person with Dissociative Identity Disorder, the analysis demonstrates that Rivers’ multiple identities are closely linked to his factual experiences and the real people he met. The above-presented analysis of the motion picture through the lens of psychological concepts and approaches allowed understanding Rivers’ path to dissociation as well as the background of his characters.


Akers, R., Krohn, M., Lanza-Kaduce, L. and Radosevich, M. (1999). Social Learning and Deviant Behavior: A Specific Test of a General Theory. Psychological Review, 106, 636-655.

Ptress, K. (2009) Discussion of Self Concept. Web.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2008). Long-Term Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: Children’s Bureau Press.

Kluft, R. (2003). Current Issues in Dissociative Identity Disorder. Bridging Eastern and Western Psychiatry, 1(1), 71-87.

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