The Usual Suspects revisited
Does the twisty '90s thriller stand up?
Revisiting the films that thrilled you as a youth can be a bittersweet experience. What horrifying things will they reveal about the teenager you once were, to the teenager on your sofa? Forewarned is fore-armed.
Can we show the kids?
The Usual Suspects (1995)
In the wake of a multi-fatality shootout in a West Coast harbour, US customs agent Dave Kujan interrogates the only survivor, small-time con man ‘Verbal’ Kint (Kevin Spacey). Kint tells him the tale of a group of hardened criminals who meet in a police line-up and end up working for, and being double crossed by, the legendary gangster Keyser Söze.
Right. The first thing to note is that The Usual Suspects has a twist at the end that recontextualises the whole film. We’re going to assume you already know what it is.
If you don’t, and don’t want to know, you’d better stop reading here.
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‘Verbal’ Kint is Keyser Söze. The story he tells Kujan - and the story the audience is told through the entire film - is (at least largely) a fabrication. At the end of the film, just as the penny is dropping for the detectives, we see him walk away from the police station to continue his merry life of murder and mayhem.
The Usual Suspects wants to be a noir. If you couldn’t tell that from its title (a pointed reference to Casablanca), you pick it up through the pained and unreliable voiceover, the world-weary underworld characters and the near-incomprehensible flashbacks and plot convolutions. Fittingly, in his interrogation Kint is effectively spinning a classic pulp tale (Pulp Fiction had been released the previous year), ricocheting from exciting scene to exciting scene so that his audience never notices the flaws in the plot.
When Howard Hawks was filming the classic Bogie/Bacall noir The Big Sleep he realised that there was an unresolved plot point: who killed the chauffeur? He cabled Raymond Chandler, the author of the original book, to ask whodunnit. Chandler replied “I don’t know”.
It didn’t matter that the plots of Chandler’s books were thin or, indeed, not actually there, because he was a funny, inventive, talented writer and The Big Sleep remains a terrific book. Unfortunately for The Usual Suspects, this cavalier approach to plotting doesn’t age so well if you’re a middle-of-the-road ‘90s thriller.
Disappointing afterlife of the stars It can be hard to watch Kevin Spacey in anything these days, let alone Kevin Spacey being directed by Bryan Singer. Both men have been repeatedly accused of sexual harrasment and misconduct, although neither has been convicted of anything.
Racism There’s a terrible moment when Pete Postlethwaite appears (usually a cause for celebration) and you realise he seems to be in brownface, playing a lawyer with an apparently Japanese name and a dubious subcontinental accent.
Violence It’s a crime movie. There are a lot of guns and a lot of them get fired into people. The ending is particularly shooty.
Bechdel test Fail. A woman does get to say something at one point, but it's mostly in French.
Direction It’s a very good-looking film1 and the visuals - unlike the plot - are admirably comprehensible. In such a convoluted thriller it’s vitally important that the audience understand who says and does what to whom. The film never lets us get confused, while also never being dull to look at. Even the gripping heist scenes maintain a strong sense of geography and relationship.
Character actors Giancarlo Esposito gets a nice hat as an FBI agent and, even better, we get Dan Hedaya as a grizzled police sergeant, as Dan Hedaya should always be. Most of the performances are pretty good; even Benicio del Toro’s garbled mumbling is at least memorable. (The story goes that on realising that his character gets offed pretty early on, he decided that a wacky voice would help him make an impact. He was right.)
The twist The twist is sold really well. There’s a dummy twist first – a red herring suggestion that Gabriel Byrne’s character, Keaton, is Keyser Söze and has faked his own death – so we don’t see the actual twist coming. And the way it’s revealed to us is brilliant: as Spacey walks away from the police station he shakes out the limp that had been the physical manifestation of ‘Verbal Kint’s’ cerebral palsy. In one step it’s revealed not just that he is Söze, but also that he is totally focused and ruthless.
Still worth watching?
If you’ve never seen it before and don’t know the end: sure, why not? But, actually rewatching it? Like you already saw it 30 years ago and now have a compulsion to watch it again? Hmm.
The problem is that once you know the twist, you know that everything that came before it is fiction, even in the world of the film. You know that Kint/Söze is a master criminal and a liar, so you have every reason to disbelieve everything he recounts. All the attention you paid to the plot? Pointless. Any investment you made in the redemption of Gabriel Byrne’s crooked cop? Pointless. Any effort you made to understand Benicio del Toro’s innovative dialogue approach? Pointless. None of it happened. One thing that none of us will ever know is what was the plot to The Usual Suspects.2
Twist endings can take over an entire film, and become all anyone knows or remembers of it. This has happened to The Usual Suspects. But not unjustly. It was part of the Miramax-influenced reinvention of the American indie movie scene, driven by the jolting success of Reservoir Dogs. There was an audience desperate for intelligent alternatives to the thick-eared, thick-brained action movies of the ’80s, and The Usual Suspects caught some of that tailwind. But it has none of the inventive, hectic dialogue of Tarantino, none of the indie charm of Jarmusch and none of the unhinged wit of the Coens.
It’s a decent little low-budget mainstream studio crime film with a terrific set-up, good performances and slick direction. But it was sold on the twist, and has been cannibalised by it. In The Sixth Sense the twist changes the meaning of the movie; you can go back and watch it again3 and see an entirely different film. The twist in Psycho4 reveals to us something about the plot we hadn’t expected, but builds on our horror and takes it to another level. The twist in The Usual Suspects does neither of those things. It exchanges two hours of our time for a magic trick. It's not a bad trick, but it doesn’t make for a movie that is going to last.
Think we’ve been unfair in rounding up The Usual Suspects? Let us know:
Next week: Graduating, McJobbing and getting high in the early '90s
Even the costumes haven’t dated too badly and aren’t too gratingly ’90s
Including writer Chris McQuarrie one suspects
I mean, should you want to
Which also sold itself on that twist, of course