MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Neo-Noir Mystery/ Stars: Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey, Suzy Amis, Benicio del Toro, Giancarlo Esposito, Dan Hedaya, Clark Gregg/ Runtime: 108 minutes
One day I was in Half Price Books, and I was going through a book about the films of the 90’s and much to my surprise The Usual Suspects was not in this book. I mean my gosh! How could any legit book focusing on cinema not include this genuine landmark film from the 90’s??? Indeed any film lover or serious analyst of movies in general must honestly consider the 90’s a bountiful time for the thriller genre from Silence of the Lambs to Se7en. Yet for all of these, it is The Usual Suspects with its intriguing narrative that many consider to be the 90’s thriller’s finest hour. Indeed with the aid of an extremely talented accomplice by the name of Christopher McQuarrie, Bryan Singer managed to weave a genuine gem into not only the fabric of American cinema, but cinema in general. Indeed one of the key reasons that ‘The Usual Suspects’ has been able to leave the legacy that it has is because of how it completely and totally takes advantage of just how gullible a movie going audience can be. I say this because for the first 100 or so minutes of the film we as an audience are given a clever and also complicated narrative for which no easy answers are to be found. Yet when the last piece of the puzzle seems to have been put where it needs to go, the entire movie is literally flipped on its axis. Indeed it is this proverbial final reveal which will leave you absolutely astonished and then slowly but surely you realize you have just fallen for one extremely diabolical trick. Yet there is another trick that this film conducts on its audience members. This trick is that it makes you believe that if you watch the movie all over again from start to finish then you will be able to comprehend just what exactly is going on. The reality of the situation is that the more you attempt to comprehend just what is going on in the film, the more befuddling it turns out to be. Thus it most likely is not in your best interests to try to search for any solid answers to the questions this film raises and instead just bow your head and begrudgingly accept that you fell for the filmmaker’s tricks hook, liner, and sinker. Indeed it is because of the captivating labyrinthesque puzzle at the heart of this film as well a top-notch cast to lead us by the hand through it all that The Usual Suspects is definitely one of the finest films let alone thrillers ever to come out of the 90’s.
The plot is as follows: An explosion has taken place on board a boat in San Pedro Harbor in California and left everyone on board deader than disco. As the local cops comb through the wreckage however, a Fed by the name of Dave Kujan has other issues. Namely that there were two survivors: one a badly burnt and almost destined to die Hungarian and the other a crippled convict by the name of Verbal Kint who Kujan has a history with. A history that takes us back 6 weeks to New York City, a heist of gun parts, and 4 other convicts whose bodies also have been discovered on board the boat in the harbor. Wanting to piece this puzzle together for personal reasons that I shall not spoil, Kujan decides to sit down and have a friendly chat with Verbal in the time he has before his bail is posted. Yet little does he realize that what he is about to hear will shake him to the core, show him that sometimes some stories may be better left untold, and that maybe just maybe there is an organization to the madness of criminality. An organization that at the very top may or may not sit a master criminal by the name of Keyser Soze……
Now for the everyday moviegoer who has just watched “The Usual Suspects” for the very first time, they might be under the impression that the whole cast and crew of the film have just conjured up a sprawling narrative with its hook being the complicated yarn being spun by Spacey’s Verbal throughout. Yet at the end of the film, I guarantee you will be baffled and feel the inclination to do another run through of the film from beginning to end. Suffice it to say that by doing so not only will you not regret doing so, but the creative duo of Singer and McQuarrie will also be quite pleased as well. This is because it is only through multiple viewings can moviegoers like yourself truly begin to appreciate just how the subtlety of a truly mesmerizing film with a complicated set-up that only begins to definitively take shape in the final 5 minutes or so. Indeed to view this film is the cinematic equivalent of putting together the pieces of a clever and curious puzzle, much like any other mystery or thriller film really. Yet in the case of this film, this one is different in that this is one puzzle you will never ever be able to completely put together. Indeed so much goes in the time span of less than two hours that never ever are you 100% positive of what you are seeing unfold before your eyes. A doubt that is also highly strengthened by a gasp-inducing and straight out of left field caliber twist at the very end which makes you and your suspicions wilt like flowers in the hot Texas sun. Suffice it to say then that the creative pairing that is Singer and McQuarrie possess a childlike glee in luring the moviegoer into their insidious world and to follow along according to what Spacey tells Agent Kujan, and through him them, and it quickly becomes quite obvious that they plan on having there be more questions than answers. Thus it is up to each and every viewer to fire up their imagination and to bring their own interpretation to the movie thus giving it a uniquely destructive charm.
Now also from the labyrinthesque narrative told by Spacey, the film’s authors have also managed to conjure up a Grade-A quality script that is both precise and yet leaves just enough in the shadows for you to try and figure out for yourself. Indeed Singer’s method of directing this film literally pivots on the proverbial edge of the razor and manages to conjure up not only an ever-increasing amount of tension and suspense, but also possesses quite a few novel concepts from a visual perspective and some fluid camera work as well. Indeed although Singer may have only been in his early thirties when he made this film, it is clear even then that he knew what he was doing. On top of that the film also succeeds thanks to an ominous musical score and also wonderfully tight editing work done by the film crew. Yet I think the most astonishing feat that the film’s helmers manage to accomplish is how they manage to drive up an audience’s curiosity level during the duration of the movie despite the presence of a befuddlement that is quite on purpose and yet the interest never wanes for one second even after they have comprehended and are blown away by the iconic twist. Yet even though in some films this might be a weakness, in this film this is an aspect which doesn’t disappoint as much as it possibly could due to the presence of tiny but noticeable hints of a visual and vocal nature that help to justify it. Yet even if with that in place there is something unnerving about the idea of thinking you have reached the end of the labyrinth only to discover there is still more afoot than initially met your eye. Thus even if maybe this film is hiding one last nugget of truth and maybe there are some clever audience members who might have figured it out, the fact nevertheless still remains to be seen that Singer still manages to take the intrigued yet confused moviegoer for a ride and by the end of the ride we are never quite sure if where we end up is our final destination or not.
Now both Singer and McQuarrie manage to show that they are brilliant students in the school of making what is considered to be a film noir. There is an ominous and unnerving atmosphere that is apparent right from the start, a lot of scenes that take place at night which will become fixed in your memory, and also all the characters are a degree of despicable and/or lacking key if not all morality ingredients whatsoever. To that end, it pleases me to say that the filmmakers were able to assemble a top-notch cast to not only bring the story to life, but to also hook you from the start where they are introduced. Of course a lot of praise must be given to Kevin Spacey for this, he is after all the guide for the audience through this trip down the proverbial rabbit hole, but the rest of the cast aren’t exactly slumming it up here by any means. Indeed as the de-facto albeit reluctant leader of the group Keaton, Gabriel Byrne does a wonderful job at giving us a man who has struggled to free himself from his past for so long, but never can quite get away because deep down it is who he is and who he always will be and Byrne nails that weariness perfectly. We also get terrifically unhinged work from Stephen Baldwin as the group’s loose cannon McManus. Indeed I don’t know if he was just playing himself or what, but man is he entertaining in this! We also get wonderfully snarky and acerbic support from Kevin Pollak as reluctant team player Hockney and delightfully odd to put it mildly work from Benicio del Toro as Fenster. Indeed in the case of del Toro he may not get a lot of lines as compared to the rest of the group, but there is at least one moment where he will make you laugh. Indeed this group of 5 guys may be one of the oddest groups of thieves ever put to film, but that is exactly why they work so well together. We also get capable and dependable work on the other side of the law from veteran character actors Chazz Palminteri, who brings a delightful cockiness, snide attitude, yet also a hint of humanity to the role of Kujan, Giancarlo Esposito, and Dan Hedaya. Finally in the middle of these 2 groups is Pete Postlethwaite as the mysterious lawyer for Keyser Soze named Kobayashi. Indeed this must have been quite the difficult part to play due to having to be enigmatic and mysterious the entire time you are on screen, but Postlethwaite manages to nail it perfectly. Indeed by the end of the film you may not know anything about him other than his name, but Kobayashi is easily one of the greatest side characters in a film noir.
All in all The Usual Suspects was most certainly not the first film in the history of cinema to contain the trope known as a twist ending (this shouldn’t be any surprise though since the twist ending was after all one of film legend Alfred Hitchcock’s trademarks) and it most certainly would not be the last film to have one either. Yet nevertheless it should be noted that The Usual Suspects is more than just a film that had a truly insidious and quite clever conclusion. Indeed this is a film which managed to reveal quite a bit about the people who avidly watch movies day in and day out and also managed to show each and every one of us that any expectations we might have about a film could be used against us in glorious fashion. To that end, it should also be stated that this is a movie about the power of both telling a story before a captivated audience as well as the importance of myth in every walk of life including both law enforcement and criminal alike. Thus I honestly think that one of the most important things that any filmmaker could hope to gleam from this film is that the more captivating and fascinating your narrative is the more your target audience will be willing to believe. Indeed it isn’t in error to say that the vast majority of this film’s success and longevity has to come from the feeling of immense satisfaction anyone who watches this film is left with by the end of things. Indeed I really believe that, despite what some may say to the contrary, people really seem to embrace a narrative when you are never entirely sure what is real and what is not along with the realization that the most underfoot characters associated with the movie are in actuality the filmmakers themselves. Thus it is because of this, and because of a stellar cast and crew all operating at the peak of their abilities that The Usual Suspects’ remains not only an entertaining and engaging puzzle, but also one of the most unique, taut, and engaging crime thrillers of the past 30+ years. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Usual Suspects a solid 4.5 out of 5.