One of the classiest thrillers of all time, The Usual Suspects is a work of sheer, unadulterated genius. It is the type of film that demands repeat viewing, demands debate, demands work on the part of the viewer. It is also one of those films that reviewers and movie-writers both love and loathe to write about. On the one hand you know you shouldn't give too much away. But on the other, you are just itching to rip the guts out of it and hold them up for all to see in an attempt to prove your own hard-fought theories. And that is just another of the seemingly effortless conundrums that Bryan Singer has inexplicably created with this film. And the reviewer's conundrum is this - if ever there was movie that demanded time, effort and reams of written dissection, then Bryan Singer's 1995 mainstream breakout The Usual Suspects is probably it, but to explore the film's complexities would be to destroy its mystique not only for the reader, but for the reviewer as well. In fact, over the years since it was released, I have bounced ideas off mates and work colleagues so passionately and protractedly that I have, more often than that, ended up disappearing up my own exhaust - so to speak. So, with this is mind, folks, don't go expecting my usual extended spiel about this one. In the case of The Usual Suspects, it would be a huge disservice.
“Every criminal I have put in prison, every cop that owes me a favour, every creep and scumbag that walks the streets for a living will know the name of Verbal Kint. Now you talk to me, or that precious immunity they seem so fit to grant you won't be worth the paper the contract put out on your life is printed on.”
Crippled con-man Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this mesmerising performance) sits in an interrogation room being grilled by US Customs detective Dave Kuylan. Floating in the harbour is a half-blown-up ship, the scene of a heist gone disastrously wrong. Something like twenty-seven corpses have been fished out of the dock and the one charred survivor of the Hungarian drug cartel lies in a hospital bed spouting terrified gibberish about having seen “the Devil.” Kint, and his buddies, were all involved, but now only Verbal is left to help Kuylan piece together just what happened that fateful night. So begins one of film-noir's most fiendishly labyrinthine plots, as Verbal weaves a story about how he and his four partners were inextricably lured into a multi-million dollar job by the underworld's biggest, baddest bogeyman, the notorious crime lord Keyser Soze. A semi-mythical figure, Soze looms large over the ensuing story rather like Harry Lime in The Third Man - a faceless entity of shifting, savage and unpredictable power and brutality. Man, folklore or monster - Verbal sits and composes Soze's epitaph to cops hell-bent on bringing him in. But they seem to be forgetting something ... Verbal's renowned skills as a confidence trickster.
The Usual Suspects is, of course, much more than a police interrogation. And even if Spacey practically owns the movie, Singer's direction ensures that this is a highly engaging ensemble picture that brings to life an utterly superb roster of nefarious characters who are, possibly, amongst the best ever assembled for a contemporary thriller. With Verbal taking us back to a night several weeks earlier, when he and four other known criminals - the usual suspects of the title - are hauled in for a police line-up over the hijacking of a truck, the introductions to this quintet has justifiably gone down in cinema history as one of the most offbeat and memorable. Kevin Pollack's explosive's expert Ted Hockney - smooth and easygoing on the surface, but simmering and volatile beneath. Stephen Baldwin's gurning, wise-cracking wildcard McManus - a skilled sniper and a “top-notch entry man” - in the only performance he ever gave that was any good. Brilliant, in fact. Benecio (The Wolf Man) Del Toro's mumbling flapper Fenster - McManus' regular partner-in-crime and a comical stooge whose barely incomprehensible gutter-jargon becomes a hysterical diversion away from what is undoubtedly a shrewd mind. The awesome Gabriel Byrne plays snappy, irascible ex-cop, ex-con Dean Keaton - the most dangerous and most wanted man on the line. The cops hate him and are determined to bring him down. But Keaton - after miraculously returning from the grave a couple of time (“I've been walking around with the same face, the same name ...”) - has turned legit. In cahoots with a hotshot lawyer, Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis) he aims to go into the restaurant business, but like the proverbial criminal legend, nobody wants him to go straight. And then there's Verbal Kint. “It didn't make sense that I'd be there,” he tells Kuylan (played with charismatic intensity by A Bronx Tale's Chazz Palminteri) about his being thrown together with these people. But there are strings pulling strings here and someone, somewhere wants these suspects to get form a team.
Like a deck of cards that mesmerises with its intricate and fragile construction, The Usual Suspects adds as many layers as it seems to peel away with a rolling narrative of continual rug-pulling. That Singer and Co. manages to suck you into their dark and menacing story with such finesse is the most amazing thing of all. Even if you simply haven't got a clue what is going on, who is doing what to who or just what they hope to gain from it all, the dexterous, see-sawing script has you constantly on the move - one minute feeling for Verbal as he squirms under Dave Kuylan's pressure, the next whimpering as the spectre of Keyser Soze spreads like a shadow over the Suspects' doomed mission. Singer's direction never actually tricks you, it merely shows you one side of events that may not be the truth. In fact, you could say that Singer actually mis-directs the film, leading you down the garden path and peppering it with so much subterfuge and intrigue that we are like putty in his hands. But if Singer is the clown whose visual antics distract you, it is Chris McQuarrie's Oscar-winning script that constantly outwits and perplexes. His finale is rife with rising mystery - bodies drop, hits are made, the team comes unglued and the ghoulishness of Keyser Soze smothers everything like a shroud. When we only have Verbal's account of what really happened, we are forced to read between the lines and to scour the frame for some sort of hidden clue. A recurring shot of Verbal's alleged hiding place is one of the most cunning of all, nagging you with its supposed importance when, like a lot of what we see in The Usual Suspects, it actually means nothing at all. When we praise films for not showing this, or that and forcing the audience to think for themselves, we should also tip the wink to Suspects for showing altogether too much yet, at the same time, showing us nothing that actually matters. Cinematic sleight-of-hand doesn't come any better than this. Only The Prestige has come close to this miasmic ruse in recent years - although, to be fair, its machinations can be guessed quite easily, its main delight held in the “ahh, so that's it” moments along the way. Suspects supplies plenty of those, too - it's just that they tend to be lies as well.
“Where's your head, Agent Kuylan? Where do you think the pressure's coming from? Keyser Soze - or whatever you want to call him - knows where I am right now. He's got the front burner under your ass to let me go, so he can scoop me up ten minutes later.”
Despite great performances across the board, Kevin Spacey has never been better. His crippled and pathetic, yet endlessly canny Verbal is a work of genius. Spacey had already broke genre moulds with his powerfully creepy (and horribly methodical) portrayal of John Doe in Se7en, but he brought such a packed bag of nuances to this part that he often appears to be assembled from a dozen or so other people. His sad come opportunist demeanour is a masterclass in both painfully protracted honesty and deeply glowering, almost insidious manipulation. His final reveal is one of the most slowly-burning turns of violence-less ferocity that I have witnessed - the type of thing that brings a huge grin to your face. Stage actors used to perfect the transformation from one character to another without the use of makeup, fx, lighting or hiding behind a prop - just in-your-face sliding from persona to persona. Spacey, a renowned stage actor in his own right, does exactly this and its effect is a tour de force. And for those of you that watch Coronation Street, there can be no doubting that Jack P. Shepherd's troubled teen David Platt has modelled his own performance on Spacey's - the attitude, the expressions, the intonations of voice and those hidden-agenda filled eyes are almost carbon-copies of Verbal's covert shtick-and-patter routine.
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.”
The film also packs in a visceral wallop, as well. The robbery from New York's Finest Taxi Service is a grand set-piece that acts as a terrific team-bonding session. How threatening-yet-ridiculous does Verbal look with his stocking-mask and sub-machine gun? McManus' elevator executions and celebrated two-gun take-down of a couple of pesky bodyguards are great fun, but pale when compared to his rooftop sniping and commando assault on the Hungarian ship - “Oswald was a fag.” The two meetings with McManus' LA contact, Redfoot, are electric and rife with tension and if the Suspects' initial introduction in the line-up is a wonderfully breezy set-piece, it is bested when realisation hits them all later on just how much their unwitting misdemeanours against Soze has placed them inescapably into his hands. Singer revealed that he could pull off action, dazzling verbiage and character within a film with The Usual Suspects but, although I have enjoyed all of his subsequent films, I don't feel he has carried this same intelligence and courage through to them. His first two X-Men outings, which I love far less than I really want to, were too scattershot and, in the case of X2, almost ruined by a protracted and needlessly complicated final act. Superman Returns was simply an action-less foundation stone for what, I pray, will be the real deal with the next instalment. But The Usual Suspects gets almost everything right and can stand up to repeated viewings that still seem as fresh and immersive as the first.
“Get your rest, Gentlemen. The boat will be ready for you on Friday. If I see you or any of your friends before then, Miss. Finneran will find herself the victim of a most gruesome violation before she dies. As will your father, Mr. Hockney. and your Uncle Randall in Arizona, Mr. Kint. I might only castrate Mr. McManus' nephew, David. Do I make myself clear?”
It seemed preposterous back in 1995 to see Pete Postlethwaite in tanned makeup and trying to pass off an Indian accent, yet having seen some of the rather ludicrous parts he has accepted since, his Mr. Kobayashi, sinister aide to Keyser Soze, now seems quite understated and believable. For one thing his business-like attitude and calm professionalism even when Baldwin's McManus has a silenced gun to his head is guaranteed to ensure his ominous intimidations regarding his employer's capabilities are bound to sink in. A great moment has Kobayashi looking through an office window and nodding for what could be any one of a multitude of reasons at Keaton, who is looking in from outside and only visible as a shadow darkens the glass and the mood. Visual tricks, cerebral tricks - the film just doesn't stop pulling them. It is also nice to see Dan (Blood Simple, Commando) Hedaya crop up as Detective Jeff Rabin, another gullible soul being transported by Verbal's intoxicating tale. But Palminteri is excellent as the dogged Dave Kuylan, a man who wants Keaton's head on a platter and simply cannot believe that the rogue cop is actually dead since his body was never recovered and he has apparently pulled this type of stunt before. His relationship with Verbal goes all round the houses - from assertive and threatening, through platonic and convivial and on towards supposed revelation and last-ditch desperation. The chemistry between him and Spacey is pure gold and it is clever the way that although Verbal's mind must be a constant whirl throughout his grilling, Spacey plays it calm and pitiable for the most part whilst you can literally see the cogs turning behind Palminteri's bushy-browed head as he struggles to make ends meet.
“He lets the last Hungarian go. He waits until his wife and kids are in the ground and then he goes after the rest of the mob. He kills their kids, he kills their wives, he kills their parents and their parents' friends. He burns down the houses they live in and the stores they work in, he kills people that owe them money. And like that he was gone. Underground. Nobody has ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. "Rat on your pop, and Keyser Soze will get you." And no-one ever really believes.”
Fairly regular Bryan Singer collaborator John Ottman composes the score for the film and also performs the editing duties. The music is moody, dark and glowering, Ottman evoking an atmosphere of melancholy and dread, tinged by a vague sense of exotica that seems to signify the legend of Keyser Soze with rich south of the border intimidation. There is a great ticking-clock aspect to the score, too, that signifies the fatalistic enterprise and a nice brash and fun signature cue to encapsulate the police apprehension of the suspects at the start. His editing is also exquisite - with the absolute finale being a real standout of timing, cutaways and pacing.
“I'm telling you this guy is protected from up on high by the Prince of Darkness.”
As a modern-day, mind-messing mystery of slowly unravelling intrigue, murder and deception, The Usual Suspects is peerless. The performances are utterly superb and although fine on their own, work staggeringly well as an ensemble. McQuarrie's screenplay is a constant delight and full of memorable dialogue that, although innately theatrical, still strikes a wonderful, urban iambic pentameter of its own. The film doesn't actually add up, though, as further viewings will prove, but, strangely enough, this doesn't detract one iota from what remains one of the most intelligent and insidious confidence tricks that a movie can pull. Personally, I could never tire of watching this and, although some elements come unstuck with scrutiny, The Usual Suspects will always be a beguiling puzzle that I'll tire of trying to crack.
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