Review: The Usual Suspects
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled…”
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
When I first finished Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, my reaction was something along the lines of — That was the best movie I’ve ever seen! It was one of those moments that only a great film can produce. The type that stuns you into silence as you watch the credits roll by, jaw agape as you come to terms with what the heck just happened. It’s true that, even today, The Usual Suspects has one of the best twist endings in modern cinema. And once you’ve watched it, you can’t help but go out and tell the next dozen people you meet — You have to see it! I certainly did.
But then I watched it again. And I wasn’t so sure.
Make no mistake, this is a brilliant film. It does the number one thing that any form of entertainment has to do. It makes you feel something. But watching it more than once, I realised it was not the perfect creation I first thought.
The twist to end all twists
I’d like to get this point out of the way first, because it really is central. When he wrote the screenplay for The Usual Suspects (which, by the way, won the academy award in 1996), Christopher McQuarrie had one goal in mind. Make the best twist ending ever. I don’t know McQuarrie, nor have I ever heard him admit to this, but I can say it with convidence because of the way the film is written. Every word in The Usual Suspects is there to serve its ending.
This is important because, first and foremost, it is what makes the ending so good.
We have our narrator, the cripple Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who has been granted immunity from the police in exchange for his version of events concerning a boat full of dead bodies and a score of $91 million. A drug deal gone wrong, they think. Special Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) doesn’t believe a word of the testimony, and strong-arms Kint into telling him the truth. Kint complies. For nearly two hours we are dragged through the most convoluted of plots, thrown loose hooks that lead to nothing, shown principle characters killed. There’s a villain named Keyser Soze, the devil himself according to Kint. Meanwhile, Kujan is convinced one of the ‘suspects’, Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), is behind it all.
Honestly, we’re not quite sure what on earth is happening and why it’s relevant. Kint seems to be on the verge of a breakdown and the film ends with the unsatisfying conclusion: Kujan was right, Keyser Soze doesn’t exist, Dean Keaton did it all. And then the real twist hits us. Verbal’s limp straightens out, he takes out his gold lighter, it turns out he fabricated the whole story (or at least replaced the names with words he saw around the room). Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze.
Amazing. And worth every minute leading up to it. But what if you know how it ends? Is it still as good? No, it isn’t.
I’m not saying The Usual Suspects isn’t an enjoyable watch second time around. The cast and the steadily unwinding tale that Kint narrates are enough to get on with. And of course, a film like this is going to lose a lot of its magic when you know what happens. But when you take away the thrill of the ending, you are left with a fragmented plot, with countless red herrings, with characters that really don’t have any substance. Everything is geared to deceive the audience, and that focus unfortunately makes other aspects of the film weaker.
I can best illustrate this with regards to the usual suspects themselves. Verbal Kint, Dean Keaton, McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Hockney (Kevin Pollack). If, like me, you knew nothing of the film before you watched it, you would expect it to be centred around these five men, about their conflict and interaction, about how they grow and change. This is what the film just doesn’t provide. It has no obligation to, admittedly. But if you were hoping to see some form of character development there simply is none.
It turns out that, with the exception of Kint, they are just a bunch of bad guys that get what’s coming to them.
On top of that, they are not really that interesting. The opening scenes provided a great opportunity to see some chemistry between them, a chance for laughs and banter, or some serious tension. We didn’t get any of that aside from the lineup scene (which becomes even funnier when you realise it was largely improvised). Even when they were all kept in a single cell the conversation was underwhelming.
As I will continually reassure, I can forgive most of this on account of the ending. What I cannot forgive, which irked me during both the first and second viewing, was the splintered storyline of Dean Keaton. At times he felt like he was central to everything. Other times he felt irrelevant. We were led to believe he was a reformed man, yet he willingly went along with every step of the gang’s wrongdoing.
In the original screenplay, our first introduction to Keaton was a look into his loving relationship with Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis). In the final cut the scene was removed, and the relationship was left undeveloped for the sake of ambiguity, presumably to greater strengthen the twist ending. On top of everything, I don’t think Gabriel Byrne did the character justice, though it was very posisble even he did not fully understand what Keaton’s motives were.
I think Singer missed a trick in Keaton, who could have provided the emotional, tragic storyline that would have strengthened the film irrespective of its ending. In the end, it was sacrificed to make the finale even more powerful.
Who is Keyser Soze?
Above all, The Usual Suspects is about deceit. From its unreliable narrator, to its jaw-dropping twist, Singer executed McQuarrie’s vision near-perfectly. A story that tells you never to trust a story. This mantra is embodied emphatically in its mysterious villain, Keyser Soze, who not only provides my favourite scene in the entire film, but aptly ties most of our loose ends into a nice bow.
Because it is so unconventional, it may seem unfair to judge the story by conventional checklists such character arcs, narrative structure etc. Singer essentially does a good job confusing us, (though I have to admit, the opening sequences I find a little too confusing), while building enough anticpiation around Keyser Soze to hit us hard with the final sucker punch. The music by John Ottman is suitably mysterious, and the acting as a whole is fantastic. Spacey, who is yet to get a real mention, thoroughly deserved the Oscar.
Despite the pitfalls I might be able to find — and honestly, I had to look very hard for them — The Usual Suspects is a film I will never stop recommending. It still sits among my all time favourites, and I will never forget the moment my heart stopped when I realised who Keyser Soze really was.