“Who is Keyser Soze?”
The Usual Suspects is a story in two parts. In the frame narrative Verbal Kint, short-con operator, explains the events that led up to a large explosion in San Pedro harbor south of LA. Verbal's narration of the main story—of a band of criminals thrown together by bad luck and some iffy arch-criminal manipulation of a staged police lineup—is a series of heists, some gone right and some gone horribly wrong.
This is an expert film. Director Bryan Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel don’t waste a frame. The Usual Suspects plays with light and shadow, reflections and deflections, still shots and tracking shots that visually allude to both film noir and comic books. Frequently, we’re left to infer the meaning of an image, as in this iconic frame repeated in the beginning and end of the film:
If you haven’t seen the movie, that looks like a pile of ropes. If you have seen the movie, you think you know exactly who is hiding behind them—and that inference speaks to the masterful power of how it is shot, edited, and explained by the characters. The gradual realization that our inferences are unreliable is part of the movie’s elegant rewatchability.
Much of the film’s success relies on Christopher McQuarrie’s award-winning screenplay. In the main narrative, the characters of the five criminals are defined within just their first scene together (the lineup). Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton is the tough guy trying to go straight after a life of corruption and brutality; he doesn’t suffer fools. Kevin Pollak’s Hockney is a working man’s criminal who likes to shoot his mouth off. McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and Fenster (Benicio del Toro) are long-time partners who rely implicitly on each other, love a good heist, and don’t take anything too seriously.
But it’s Kevin Spacey’s performance as Verbal Kint that is most astonishing. Spacey manipulates his broad-shouldered, relatively tall frame into a slight, limping, easily frightened man with the brains to plan a heist but no brawn to pull it off. Even though we’re told he’s a con man, we quickly underestimate him—especially in comparison with the tough guys he pairs with.
Unlike his partners in crime, Verbal doesn’t maintain a noir façade of impenetrability and disdain. Verbal is our vulnerable emotional entry point to the band of hardened criminals that decide to embark on a series of revenge crimes after being thrown into the lineup. He’s the one to ask the fabled question—Who is Keyser Soze?—the mystery of which dominates the second half of the film. And he’s the one that Dean Keaton, former corrupt cop and brutal thief, looks out for.
Verbal is also the only character to exist in both the frame narrative and the main narrative. In the frame, he is questioned by friendly Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and Sgt. Jeffrey Rabin (Dan Hedaya), with occasional input from Jack Baer, FBI (Giancarlo Esposito). It is through Verbal that we gradually understand how a staged lineup in New York could have led to an explosion in the San Pedro harbor that left 27 people dead.
The story he tells is one of bromantic tension: five hardcases who band together but can’t put aside conflict. It’s a story of the things people do for love—McManus’s love for his partner Fenster, Keaton’s love for his girlfriend Edie Finneran—and what it costs them. It’s a classic series of retironies: one last job that leads to another, and another, until it all explodes in the harbor. It’s an epic, masculine, beautiful crime tragedy.
If you haven’t seen this movie, please stop reading now. It is an excellent movie. Go watch it now. Spoilers below the kitten!
A very astute viewer might realize the complexity of Verbal’s unreliability early; as I was 14 the first time I watched this movie, I feel no shame in admitting it took me a few go-rounds to realize how complicated his interplay with Agent Kujan is. As Kujan probes, Verbal’s story changes: Kujan is the first to bring up Keyser Soze, so Verbal works him into the narrative. Kujan is the first to say there was no dope—and we see Keaton bemoaning the lack of dope on the boat in a scene that is would have been physically impossible for Verbal to witness, if his reports of his whereabouts were otherwise accurate.
Verbal is unreliable, of course, because almost everything he says is an outright lie. He is Keyser Soze, and whatever happened, he got what he wanted: the one man who could identify him is now dead. His story, spun out of random bits of information in Rabin’s office, leads Kujan to pin the blame on Keaton. Soze lets Kujan (and us) make the inferences he wants him (and us) to make. What appeared to be a frame narrative, an excuse for a heist film, is actually the only “true” thing we’ve seen. Everything else was a product of Soze’s manipulative language and Dave Kujan’s overactive imagination.
In lesser hands, that sort of drastic unreliability could prove extremely unsatisfying. “It was all a lie” is a terrible thing to remind a viewer or reader of at the end of a story; it disrespects our investment of time and emotion. But Singer and McQuarrie don’t spoil the fun even in this wonderful last scene (which also showcases John Ottman’s excellent score and editing):
The fun isn’t spoiled because the story we’ve heard isn’t untrue—just tweaked. Some parts may be true, some may be adapted, some (like the lineup) have been externally confirmed by the investigators in the frame narrative. The movie we thought we were watching morphed into something else: a story about the nature of fictionality and the trust we put in images, narrators, and cinematic conventions. That story is one we craft ourselves, with numerous rewatches and hunts for clues. It is one phenomenal con by a character we knew to be a conman.
Verbal Kint—Keyser Soze—reminds us that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us he didn’t exist.” The Usual Suspects reminds us that the devil in the details, that the best story (“the one I choose to believe,” as Verbal says at one point) is the one we don’t hear, the one we suspect, and the one we make up on our own.