Movie Review: The Usual Suspects

The first half of this review is spoiler-free. After a big, bold heading and an adorable spoiler kitten, I refer to the film’s big reveal. If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend that you watch it before reading past the kitten.


“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 fa├žade 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.

16 comments:

sunbunny said...

Never seen it. Xander spoiled me years ago on this movie. Damn you, Xander!

I'm curious: did you invent spoiler kitten or is it just a thing? Because if you invented it, well, that's just awesome.

Josie Kafka said...

As far as I know, I have invented the spoiler kitten.

sunbunny said...

Hey you guys! Josie invented something! And it's adorable!

a.m. said...

You should definitely use the spoiler kitten from here on out! It's so cute and a great space filler...

I loved this movie when I first saw it. My feeling of surprise at the final scene was so visceral that it returns to me every time I watch Spacey walk away. This movie, Memento, and SE7EN are my favorites from that era and its been great reliving two of them through your reviews today. Thanks, Josie!

Mark Greig said...

I once had to give a presentation about this film at uni. I remember rambling on about how not only is Verbal an unreliable narrator, but Kujan is an unreliable listener who has already decided on the ending (Keaton was behind it all) before he has even heard the full story. Somehow I got a passing grade.

Billie Doux said...

Terrific movie, terrific review. And I hereby declare that Doux Reviews is now the official home of the Spoiler Kitten.

Josie Kafka said...

Mark, that sounds like an excellent presentation. I'm fascinated by unreliable readers--those characters within texts that react to and interfere with an unreliable narrator. Hammett's The Dain Curse is a subtler example of that sort of interference.

Sunbunny, you may think you know the film's "answer"--but you should really watch it anyway.

A.M, it sounds like we have very similar taste! I was thinking about films that I could group with Memento and The Usual Suspects--do you have any recommendations?

sunbunny said...

It's on my list. My very, very, very long list that only seems to get longer no matter how many movies on it I watch.

Billie Doux said...

Funny. I have a list like that, too.

Patrick said...

This is one of my all-time favorite movies. I still remember the night I first saw it. I was home from college on one of our breaks, and got it on pay-per-view. I recorded it on VHS while I watched. Once the credits finished scrolling, I stopped the tape, rewound it, and immediately watched the movie again.

The next summer, I was staying in the town where my school was, with a friend of mine in his apartment since his roommates wouldn't be back until Fall. One afternoon we sat down and I played the movie for him, and it blew him away. About a week later he came to me and said, "I really need to see Usual Suspects again," so we watched it again. This time another friend of ours who hadn't seen it before came over and watched with us. A week or so after that, SHE called me and asked to watch it again. This pattern continued throughout the summer. We must have had half a dozen Usual Suspects viewing parties, with new people joining who had never seen it before.

Josie Kafka said...

Patrick, my first draft of this review started with a similar story: my little brother and I discovered this movie in our local video store and rented it. And rented it again. And again. Once, our mom returned it without realizing how addicted we were, and we nearly revolted. (Then she let us rent it again.) My little brother was 8 or 9 when we watched it the first time--he had good taste, even then.

I've probably seen this movie 30 times. Each time I notice something new. Watching it yesterday in preparation for this review, I was astonished by the fire/water symbolism and how it intersects with the frequent mentions of the devil. The time before that, I was transfixed by the homosocial bonding of the three groups: the Usual Suspects, the Cops, and even the Redfoot gang.


a.m. said...

Josie, the only other one I could think of was 12 Monkeys but it doesn't quite stand up over time as well as the two you reviewed today.

I just love a good movie that changes your perception of it right before the credits and makes you want to watch it again immediately to look for all the clues you might have missed. Unfortunately, it seems like lots of movies in the 2000s tried to follow this pattern but fell short.

celticmarc said...

Wow.

I've never seen, nor heard about, this movie. Yet, with your incredible review and with that youtube clip, I am transfixed. This is BRILLIANT. (And Kevin Spacey blows my mind; what a terrific actor !)

This is what I love about Hollywood: of all the insanely high number of movies produced on a yearly basis, once in a while, there is a genuine gem coming out of the lot.

This is beyond entertainment; this is beyond getting into a dark room with a huge bowl of popcorn.

Wow.

"Spoiler kitten" : another gem...

Have I said how MUCH I love this site ??? My love grows daily; you guys (and galls) are AMAZING !

Mark said...

I wasn't as impressed as most people about the story twist. (Saw the clues at the halfway point of the movie.) But maybe it wasn't surprising because I had read a lot of spy novels, and watched enough Sesame Street ("which of these things is not like the others?").

Steve said...

This is an awesome movie; the twist is similar to the Sixth Sense in that everything clicks, and then you want to watch it again right away. It's an incredibly well crafted film and you should watch it even if you know the twist. I'll bet you want to watch it again.

Spoiler kitty is a BIG WIN!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant movie and the twist is a real shocker the first time..after that it's just a bonus. Spacey rocks and the others are also stellar. The Keaton/Kint bromance is compelling and kinda tragic. Also good point about Kint altering his story for Kujan.
Great review. Adorable kitten.
Anna