Rating: 8 out of 10.

SPOILERS!

The ending of any story is usually what we remember most vividly: the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes; the head in the box in Se7en; the “Forget it, Jake” line in Chinatown; Tony Montana’s little friend in Scarface; the chilling look from Norman Bates in Psycho; or that infamous closing of the doors in The Godfather. But have many films utilised the ending better than The Usual Suspects?

The 1995 film comes from the point of view of Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint (Kevin Spacey), a maimed criminal, who is provided immunity from prosecution as long as he assists Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) in revealing all the details about his involvement in the heist of a freighter ship with a group of career criminals: Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) and Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack).

The reason I’m reviewing this one is simple: structure. Similarly to Memento, it’s very interestingly done: Verbal is being interviewed by Kujan about his criminal doings and an explosion on this freighter ship – meanwhile, a severely burnt Hungarian in hospital is babbling about the legendary crime lord Keyser Söze to Jack Baer, played by Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito.

Then, told through Verbal’s flashbacks, we indulge in the story that brought us to this moment. Just like Memento, The Usual Suspects tells you what’s going to happen in the very first scene, but throughout the hour and forty eight minutes comes to redefine it.

What’s great about this film is the fact it’s a group of oddball, misfit low lives brought together by an overarching conflict. I’ve mentioned this previously, but it’s worth coming back to: the theme of family. Family is everything in most flicks or TV shows.

In Apocalypse Now, a squad of men, losing their minds in Vietnam, are tasked with assassinating a renegade general. In Alien, a crew of blue-collar workers have to defeat an alien. The Usual Suspects is the same, and a prime example of people who couldn’t be anymore different, but have to unite, in this case, to kill people and get very rich from nefarious robberies.

It’s commendable that the actors were able to transform what would have been two dimensional plot devices into personable and likeable characters. Stephen Baldwin, brother of Alec, gives a career best performance as the smart mouth, erratic professional; Gabriel Byrne’s accent is frustrating, but he’s provided with the most backstory and internal friction, although his girlfriend story probably could have been explored more; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Kevin Pollack resigns from his usually lighter comedic self for a darker, dramatic impression; and Benicio del Toro shows some incredible acting creativity to flesh out a man who has nothing to do in the script with some brilliant mumbling and unique mannerisms.

Kevin Spacey is great. This was the film that birthed him with his first Oscar win. His shy nature is perfectly contrasted by those shifty eyes and rambling anecdotes. He makes the film, really, because he’s so convincing – he makes us feel his fear, his pain, his twisted relationship between Keaton. The power dynamic between Spacey and Palminteri plays into that: Verbal is happy to be the meek weakling, giving the confident Kujan, what we all think, the upper hand. But who’s really being played?

The brilliant Pete Postlethwaite is just as good as the stone faced Kobayashi, the right hand man to Keyser Söze. If you find any of the other departments lacking, these two certainly make the film worth the watch alone.

The plot is intricate and intelligently fabricated. If you find yourself confused, I wouldn’t worry too much – the whole purpose of the script is to manipulate the audience and take advantage of your expectations. The Usual Suspects tells us a lot about the film viewing audience: we are incredibly gullible, for one. Simply because what Verbal is saying matches what we see on the screen, we choose to believe him, even though he’s a con man, a criminal and a liar.

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

Verbal Kint

It’s a slow burn, that progressively heats up after every scene. And, as with any great slow burn, it’s a very rewarding one. You couldn’t talk about The Usual Suspects without mentioning the ending. It’s brilliant twist, up there with Fight Club and Memento’s for pure shock and thrill value. The moment when Verbal suddenly stops limping, or that split second flash of Verbal shooting Keaton will always bring a smile to my face – it’s rightfully iconic.

But they’ll always be the argument that the film relies too heavily on that shock ending. And, no doubt, there’s some truth there. Without it, the pinnacle of the film would be an elaborate shoot ’em up against some Hungarian gangsters.

Admittedly, it doesn’t quite make sense – the main reason Söze wants to attack the boat is to kill a man the Hungarians are buying who knows who he is, but both Kujan and Baer discover Verbal is Söze by the end, which kind of lets his whole master plan down. But when that final revelation hits you like a ton of bricks, I’m happy to let them off. Hey, it’s a film at the end, and sometimes entertainment comes above realism.

Although I always had my suspicions, part of its art is that it always plants enough seeds of doubt in your mind. In fact, suspicions arise when an artist begins doing a drawing of Keyser from the burnt hospital patient’s description, which is dragged out for the rest of the film. But Spacey’s performance is so compelling I never fully committed to the theory till the very end.

And even though the ending is the big firecracker, it’s surprisingly rewatchable. You’ll always be searching through for the clues, and they’re not in short supply: when an unknown gunman urinates on a flame at the beginning of the film, it is gelatinous and lumpy – at the start of the interrogation, Kint asks for coffee and notes that when he gets dehydrated, his urine becomes very thick and lumpy. Or, of course, Kobayashi porcelain. On the first watch, this picture below is Verbal looking at Kujan. On the second, it’s him looking at the bottom of the mug. That’s what’s great about this film: the truth is staring you right in the face the whole time, but it doesn’t fit our picture of evil, because a weak, malleable, disabled man couldn’t be the face of the devil – but evil, as we know, comes in many forms.

The Usual Suspects pulls some dirty tricks – mainly just plain lying to the audience – yet so many still come out satisfied, and that deserves praise for both director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. It may be more style over substance, but man: it’s entertaining. And with an ending like that, who could forget it?

The Usual Suspects – 8 out of 10

15 Comments

  1. Doesn’t someone say ‘f***o’ in this?
    Good post

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “Which truck?”

      “The truck with the guns, f***o!”

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Alex Good says:

    I’ve always dug my heels in against this movie. Yeah, the cast is great. And it’s clever and all. It sweeps you along. But the ending wrecked it for me.

    I mean, for this movie to really work they had to stick the landing but here they just sort of tossed the ending at you and it made no sense. I remember walking out of the theatre asking “Why was Keyser Soze doing any of this?” And if the only answer is “Just so they could have this really clever movie” then that’s a cop out. You’re not really fooling the audience or putting one over on them if the big reveal at the end doesn’t make any sense. And the script here won an Oscar for best original screenplay.

    Anyway, I use to rant about this years ago. Time I let it go I guess.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting. The ending really doesn’t make sense, but hey – maybe ol’ Keyser was just feeling a bit bored, bit lonely. He’s practically the devil! You can’t question his motivations! And who knows? Perhaps Verbal isn’t Keyser after all…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Alex Good says:

        Motivation has always been a bugbear of mine in scripts. I want to know that the characters have good reasons for doing what they’re doing. Or at least feel I can understand their thinking. Otherwise you get the proverbial “idiot plot” of a horror movie where you keep going “why the hell are they doing that?” and the only answer is “because they have to in order to move things along.” Or you have characters who are psychopaths and just do whatever they do for the hell of it. They’re crazy.

        For me, and again this is a personal thing, I want to see a character behaving the way I think I would behave or that most people would behave in a given situation. That’s part of constructing a good plot. If you’ve written a screenplay that only works because the people in it do unreasonable or stupid things then it’s not a good screenplay.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. sopantooth says:

    Sometimes I think “hey, there’s a movie with Chazz Palminteri and Stephen Baldwin in it that’s pretty good” and it reminds me that anything is possible.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha! It’s a crazy cast looking back at it, but it works perfectly. Both Palminteri and Baldwin are great, even if they haven’t done an awful lot of quality stuff before or after The Usual Suspects. Palminteri will always have Modern Family to fall back on, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ola G says:

    One of my faves 😁 It’s one of the very few movies where I don’t care the story makes no sense – I just enjoy the ride. Spacey and Postlewhite are amazing, but the rest of the cast supports them wonderfully, too. It does rely heavily on the final twist, true, but as you said it’s still very re-watchable, even when you know the ending 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Completely agree, Ola. I think you’re bang on. It doesn’t make sense, but who cares? The cast is great, and the ending even better. Glad you like it!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. beetleypete says:

    I simply don’t care if the ending was to prove the film was ‘clever’. I just LOVE this film. Sharp, superb casting, something different for a refreshing change, Spacey, Postlethwaite, De Toro and Palminteri, bring it on.
    Modern crime thrillers don’t get better than this for me, and I have nothing bad to say anout it, not one single thing. Saw it at the cinema, then bought the VHS, and then bought the DVD.10/10.
    By the way, I think the ending is GREAT!
    Cheers, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you love it, Pete! I think you’re right on all fronts – it’s sharp, well cast and most certainly different. Go on, give it a rewatch! Agree that the ending is one of the best.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. scifimike70 says:

      For an ending that haunts us with the message about how easily evil can walk among us, it’s indeed a most unrivalled ending.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. What a great review again. You put the finger on the real trick of this movie. And reading, I thought about another point : it could be also a film on the criminal story that’s told to others to make a myth. Bad guys do that in the real life and cinema likes those stories, because cinema always print the legend (as Ford said). The Usual Suspect tells us about that too I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Mr Cranoir. I think I see what you’re getting at. It’s an interesting point – have you done a review of The Usual Suspects? I’d like to see your views on the film.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Unfortunately not, but I should. It’s been too long since I saw the film.

        Liked by 2 people

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