The first time I watched The Usual Suspects it was a turning point in my love affair with movies; I had never been so powerfully affected by a film in my life. However, it wasn’t until years later that I realized that The Usual Suspects was my favorite film. It is that one film that every time I hear the theme, or see a piece of it playing on TV I want to stop whatever I am doing and watch the entire movie. I can quote almost the entire movie line for line; I truly believe that in this film Bryan Singer created a masterpiece.
Before going into my breakdown of the plot I need to lay something out; one of the cardinal, unspoken rules when discussing The Ususal Suspects is to not talk about the ending – to do so would spoil one of the greatest cinematic moments in film history. It simply is not discussed; even AFI adhered to this rule when they released their list of greatest moments/film villains. If you’ve seen the film you know why.
The Usual Suspects is put together like a puzzle, a puzzle laid out by one Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). It begins with an exchange between two men on a boat; one man, Dean Keaton, is obviously not long for this world and the other we never see, but Keaton calls him “Keyser” before the man shoots Keaton in the head and sets fire to the boat. This enigmatic character introduction is soon brushed aside as the film brings us to the present and reveals the boat has exploded, and Agent Kujan from Customs gets involved with the questioning of Kint about his involvement with the crime and his associates who died on the boat, trying to unravel the fate of a former cop-turned-criminal Dean Keaton; meanwhile, at the county hospital FBI Agent Jack Baer begins to question the lone survivor of the explosion Arkosh Kovash.
During questioning Kovash reveals that it was not as simple a crime as the authorities thought and Kint begins his tale: in New York, weeks prior to the boat explosion Kint along with criminals Keaton, Fenster, McManus, and Hockney were brought in for a false line-up by the NYPD and the cops created a deadly alliance between the criminals. From there the story grows until it takes a sharp turn into the middle as the question is raised – Who is Keyser Soze? The film soon becomes a hunt for not just the motive of the crime that was committed, but a search for the truth behind the identity of the greatest criminal mind of all time.
The expertise with which this film is put together would make you think that this was not Bryan Singer’s first major film but it is. Before The Usual Suspects he had only done the film festival hit Public Access which now meets mixed reviews depending on the audience. As I stated before, this film is put together like a puzzle with multiple timelines, flash backs, and flash forwards that lay out the pieces of the story only as Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie see fit. The visual style is one of the most striking that I have seen in any film, and I don’t say this very often but the lighting is beautiful.
While all of the actors from Stephen Baldwin to Pete Postlethwaite are phenomenal, this is the film that gave Kevin Spacey his first Oscar. Let me tell you he more than deserved this nod for best supporting actor; the entire film hinges on his performance as Kint. Spacey manages to play the character with such ease that you would think he too were a crippled con man who thinks the world is out to get him, there is not a nod of his head or shift of his eyes that is not 100% in tune with the character and the world that has been created in the film.
This film also owes props to the talented John Ottoman. Why more musicians are not editors is beyond me; the skills do actually have quite a bit in common when dealing with rhythm and tempo and The Usual Suspects does benefit greatly from having an editor who also wrote the score. The rhythm of the cuts and the film score blend seamlessly to create some of the most fluid footage I’ve ever watched; it’s so subtle it’s almost beyond description but having seen the film as many times as I have you notice the subtlety.
I do urge everyone to see this film in their lifetime. I promise you that you will not regret it. Just remember, don’t discuss the ending.
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie
McManus: Stephen Baldwin
Keaton: Gabriel Bryne
Fenster: Benicio Del Toro
Hockney: Kevin Pollak
Kint: Kevin Spacey
Kujan: Chazz Palminteri
Kobayashi: Pete Postlewaite
Jack Baer: Giancarlo Esposito
Edie Finneran: Suzy Amis
Jeff Rabin: Dan Hedaya
Verbal: You tell me, Agent Kujan, if I told you the Loch Ness Monster hired me to hit the harbor, what would you say?