U is for (The) Usual Suspects

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

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It’s very difficult for me to believe this movie is almost twenty years old. Twenty years people! And it still stands up today as being one of the greatest crime-mystery thrillers ever made. Before Bryan Singer carved his name in superhero franchise history he took the hot seat in a relatively small budgeted movie boasting an impressive cast of actors and lulled all of us viewers into thinking we were watching an entirely different movie altogether. The last few scenes will forever be remembered as some of the most surprising in the annals of the film industry and in a weird way kind of invented (or at the very least re-established) a new genre; the thriller that is cleverer than the viewer. The end twist has yet to ever be bettered (and that includes seeing dead people).

After bumping heads during a random police line-up, five experienced criminals all with various different backgrounds and skills team up for a million dollar gem heist. There’s Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), a crippled con-man, Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) the ex-cop turned crook whose trying his best to stay straight, Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) the erratic foreigner who can barely speak English, Hockney (Kevin Pollack) the crafty veteran and sharp-tongued smart-ass McManus (Stephen Baldwin) After they reap their rewards the gang is then approached by a man named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), who claims to be representing a mysterious and infamous underground crime boss named Keyzer Soze. He offers them a job they simply can’t refuse but events soon turn sour leading to a massive explosion on a ship that kills everyone involved and leaving only one burned survivor. And this is where the movie begins. It all sounds simple enough, not too different from any other crime thriller, and in reality it is like any other crime thriller, at least at first glance.

Chazz Palminteri’s Detective Kujan has been assigned the case and he soon arrests Verbal who is then forced to tell the story from that fateful first meeting to the present day, essentially reliving events through flashbacks. It’s through Verbal’s confession that we the viewers gradually take hold of the story and must attempt to piece the puzzle together. Flashbacks have often been overused in the past and are sometimes seen as a lame and lazy approach but in this case they work perfectly for this scenario. Just when we think we might be getting somewhere a new shred of information comes to light and shifts the story in another direction. Whenever Kujan discovers the mysterious Keyzer Soze’s involvement, his attention (and ours) penetrate towards Soze’s identity and thus the end game finally begins to show itself, it’s actually getting there that proves to be the problem.

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The Usual Suspects is an extremely intricate tale of criminal cunning that has a film noir feel to it. The story is at times quite laborious to follow. With the exception of Keaton, who I guess is our lead, we never really find out enough about each of the other characters to fully understand them, but in a way that actually helps the cause of the movie’s third act plot twist. We’re constantly second guessing ourselves without ever really getting any answers. Answers aren’t the most important element of this movie, it’s the questions that arise that keep us watching. Is it perfect? Probably not and if we look hard enough I’m sure we can find a few plot holes in there but only the staunchest movie critic would even begin to overlook the highly suspenseful and darn right entertaining craftsmanship in favour of petty mistakes.

Much respect must go to Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie, Way Of The Gun) on writing duties for creating a convoluted, fast paced story that delivers everything you need in a thriller of this magnitude without ever really giving away too many details. McQuarrie has written a smart screenplay for smart audiences but by the end still manages to leave us with gaping expressions and desperately wanting more. As much as the movie belongs to the writer, he has to share the glory with the cast, who are all superb in their acquired roles. Gabriel Byrne has never been better as the brooding ex-cop easily tempted by his shameful dark side and Palminteri also excels as the shouty, tough detective eager to get his man. But the stand out is Kevin Spacey. This is the movie that launched his career to the next level (he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) and the performance that he still has to live up to.

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Not only did The Usual Suspects change how audiences perceived story telling but it changed how stories were told. It’s far from an open and shut case, ambiguity is its central device, giving the viewers only a percentage of the details and leaving them to fill in the blanks. It might take a second or third watch to fully appreciate it’s quality. It’s the kind of movie that after watching it you want to watch it again with friends just to see their reaction. Lesser writers and directors might’ve shied away and failed but Singer pulls everything together in the end in a genuine “holy shit” moment that basically slaps us in the face and laughs at us as we rub our cheeks. Whether you like this angle or not, it’s definitely a movie viewers won’t forget for a very long time.

8/10

Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter

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