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