Round Up The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects is directed by Bryan Singer, written by Christopher McQuarrie, and stars Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite, and Kevin Spacey. McQuarrie won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Spacey won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects is a film that embraces unpredictability, growing more complex by the minute and never giving you a straight answer to how things actually are until the very end, where the biggest surprise of all occurs. Singer has described the film as, "Double Indemnity meets Rashomon", created so that you will notice several things the second time around that you didn't notice the first time. I support this claim, because my own experience made me realize that The Usual Suspects is a film that requires at least two viewings to fully wrap your head around and appreciate. The first viewing is most likely to be something of a struggle with understanding the plot, while the second viewing, and any additional viewing afterwards, is an opportunity to perceive the film for its strong writing and for the benefits of its narrative structure, one that relies heavily on flashbacks and connecting the dots.
The film's title, if you hadn't guessed already, originated from Claude Rains' famous line from Casablanca. Singer read a Spy magazine column titled "The Usual Suspects" after Rains' line, and he thought the title would work for a movie, leading to him and writing partner Christopher McQuarrie developing a story in which a group of criminals meet in a police line-up (and which turned out to be the idea behind the film's poster). Kevin Spacey wanted to be in Singer's next film after he saw Singer's first film, Public Access, at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, with Benicio del Toro being cast as well upon Spacey's suggestion. Stephen Baldwin, fed up with taking part in exploitative indy films at the time, was hesitant to join the production at first, but eventually signed on. The collection of actors for the film was a rather unusual one, financiers of the film upset because there was no notable star attached to the film. But may I ask: would the film have been as effective had it been a collection of well-known stars as opposed to a group of more unknown faces? If there were stars like Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Tommy Lee Jones cast in the film instead of say Baldwin, Byrne, and Spacey, how could we be as suspicious of the characters? We would be immediately tempted to think the perpetrator is Walken or Pacino, because we've seen those actors in villainous roles before. Now, if the group consisted of mostly unknown actors, there would be no clear-cut answer, because this is probably our first time seeing these actors, and therefore, we have no prior knowledge to do detective work with.
Anyway, the plot of The Usual Suspects revolves around the interrogation of Roger "Verbal" Kint (Spacey), a con-man with cerebral palsy. Kint is one of two survivors of a massacre and explosion aboard a ship docked in the Port of Los Angeles. Kint tells his interrogator, U.S. Customs Agen Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminetri), of the story of how he and his partners got on the ship, preceded by a series of events that began six weeks earlier. Meanwhile, the other survivor, Hungarian mobster Arkosh Kovash (Morgan Hunter) is recovering in a hospital from burns suffered during the ship massacre, constantly mentioning the name Keyser Soze. Keyser Soze is the name of a Turkish crime lord with a reputation that supposedly makes criminals shake in their boots, as well as the person responsible for tasking Verbal and his men to appear on the ship. Verbal's story develops layer after layer, while police at the hospital try to get more information about Keyser Soze from Kovash.
We'll talk about the film's most infamous moment in a minute, but I want to talk at least a little about the other famous moment from the movie: the lineup scene. I never fully understood why people made such a big deal about this scene, other than the fact that it's basically what we see on the poster and the scene that served as a major source of inspiration for the movie. The scene was supposed to be Verbal and his partners simply stepping forward one by one and saying to a couple of watching police officers, "hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker." During filming, however, the actors kept cracking up and making a blooper reel out of the scene, and Bryan Singer eventually decided to go with the funniest takes instead of shooting the scene as dead serious. I wanna say because the actors being all goofy is the reason why the scene is so memorable, but I really can't be too sure.
- It is so difficult to talk about The Usual Suspects in considerable length because any sane person doing a review of this movie would do everything in their power to avoid mentioning anything that may give away the film's ending. The twist ending to the film is considered by many to be one of the best plot twists in all of cinema, pulling the rug out from underneath you just when you think you have the mystery figured out. The movie hits you first with a conclusion that ends up being a fake twist, to deter you long enough so that the actual twist will whack you like a ton of bricks. A montage of lines from earlier in the film play over while the real twist comes to light, revealing that some of the lines have double entendre, lines you never would originally have guessed had double entendre. The twist is an excellent example of "show the reveal without speaking the reveal out loud", right in line with a similar kind of twist like in Citizen Kane.
- Christopher McQuarrie deserves a lot of credit for his screenplay that is brimming with snappy dialogue, workable characters, and a plot that never lets the audience assume too much. The only way I think one could become bored by this movie is if the plot becomes too confusing and you proceed to give up and just roll with whatever is playing out on screen. I would much rather take a confusing plot as opposed to a highly predictable one, and The Usual Suspects is much more than former than the latter.
- Roger Ebert listed The Usual Suspects as one of his most hated films, stating that the film was confusing and uninteresting, both of which are understandable, because this movie is certainly not for everyone. The truth is that you really have to pay attention to every little detail from start to finish if you want to have any hope of understanding the plot on your first viewing as well as get the full impact of the twist ending. And while any further viewings ought to clear up any prior confusion and help you better see the movie for how it works on a narrative level, you no longer have the shock of the twist ending. That is to say, The Usual Suspects is something of an unfair movie: it's next to near impossible to both fully understand the plot and be wowed by the twist ending, the latter only being possible on a first viewing. So I suppose that means your best chance of getting the most out of The Usual Suspects is to go all in on your first viewing, and pray your mind doesn't slip even a little while watching. And given how people's attention spans nowadays are shorter than that of a tadpole, I find this movie hard to recommend to young folks (which sounds a little paradoxical of me because I myself am one of those young folks). Telling ya though, people. Writing can be a powerful thing if you take the time to understand it.
And let us not forget about some other key parts of the film that also really work: the acting that is spot-on, the violence that comes in spurts to spice things up every now and then, and a nice little score by John Ottman to liven scenes up without ever sounding overblown. Put it all together, and The Usual Suspects turns out to be quite a loaded package, even if it may not be realizable right away. You can dismiss the film as overly confusing after one viewing and never speak of it again. But for those who may care to understand the film, even a little bit, what I will tell you is this: The Usual Suspects works because of the risks it takes in being unpredictable, building and building in complexity until it wallops you with a twist ending that you'll want to talk about with your other movie-loving friends. Not all films can be fully appreciated after one viewing. Let The Usual Suspects be a fine example of how that can be true.
Recommend? Yes, but be warned, the first viewing is most likely going to be very confusing
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: