The Usual Suspects (1995)
The year of 1995 was a great one for the crime genre, and one of my favorite years in movies. This year saw the release of Michael Mann’s Heat, David Fincher’s Se7en, and this, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. In my opinion, all three films are exceptional, unique, and standard bearers of their subgenres of crime. The Usual Suspects falls very much into that film noir category. It is a great film, but some say it has no re-watchability due to the twist ending. I happen to disagree. This is a film that has more than just story to satisfy, and I hope my insights here will help you see that.
San Pedro, California is the stage for the aftermath of a fiery mystery on a ship in the bay. Law enforcement discovers 27 bodies and $91 million worth of drug money, and has attracted the interest of the FBI and U.S. Customs. The only survivors are a severely burned Hungarian and the crippled con man Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). Verbal tells the story of how he and four other felons were rounded up and put into a line-up six weeks ago in New York for a trumped up charge about heisted gun parts. They are the wisecracking hijacker Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack), the short tempered and egotistical professional thief Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), his accent-heavy partner Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and the real prize for the NYPD is Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a corrupt former cop who has supposedly given up a life of crime. However, U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), who has a deep, invested interest in determining the fate of Dean Keaton, is not willing to let Verbal go without digging deeper into his story. He learns that the five men forge a loose accord to engage in a series of daring, highly profitable heists that lead them out to Los Angeles into an unforeseen, threatening situation. As Kujan probes Verbal for the truth, FBI Special Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) discovers that the Hungarian says he saw the devil, he saw Keyser Soze. He is the most feared and mythic of crime figures, and no one has been able to identify him, until now. Verbal’s story unfolds as Kujan and his colleagues slowly assemble the fragmented pieces of this puzzle which may lead directly to the identity of Keyser Soze.
I’m starting with the cinematography and music here because they are where the atmosphere of the film thrives. Newton Thomas Siegel was the director of photography, same as the later made Denzel Washington film Fallen. I previously reviewed that here, and highly praised the look, feel, and cinematography of that film. This film further solidifies Siegel’s rich talent in my view. He does absolutely brilliant work in evoking such strong and mysterious moods throughout the film with both his camera work and the lighting. It is a gorgeous example of film noir visuals in the color medium. Light and shadow are indeed key, but the subtle color temperatures give the right tinge of atmosphere and tone in key scenes. The compositions are very well plotted out to have, sometimes, double meanings upon first and second viewings. The staging and angles of the scenes between Spacey and Palminteri are amazingly well handled to never make it feel like the same old thing every time. There’s a new angle, a new composition, a new way the scene is played out in that limited physical space every time the film cuts back to it, and it all feels natural from the development of emotions and storytelling. Much of this is indeed a well planned out idea from the filmmaking team as a whole, but Siegel executes it with amazing skill and artistry.
John Ottman, who was also the editor, created a fantastic score that lives and breathes on its own. Listening to the soundtrack is a brilliant, vibrant pleasure. It has character and personality while maintaining the subtle style of the storytelling. The theme itself is great and is instantly recognizable when it hits, and it really drives the story forward in certain parts. There’s a nice flourish in the opening arrest montage where some steel drums chime in once Fenster is introduced. Just that little bit of Caribbean flavor conveys something to the audience about the character before he ever says a single word. That’s such a smart piece of work. Overall, Ottman’s score brings all the mysterious, suspicious, suspenseful, and dramatic elements of the film together in a powerful and vibrant way. As with the cinematography, it evokes a strong film noir style while still feeling contemporary.
Furthermore, Ottman’s editing is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Not just in how each scene itself is cut together, but how everything flows together. How the film transitions from present time to flashback and back again. I don’t know how much of it was in the script, but the execution is what truly matters. Things are well punctuated in these transitions allowing for the dramatic narrative to hit the right beats in the right context. Ottman knows when to pull us into and out of a flashback, and exactly how to do it. That also feeds much into the sound editing and design. It all feels organic and entirely in sync to create a cohesive flow and objective in pinpointing these moments. There is so much one can learn of good structural flow of a narrative by watching this film. I also love how there are many moments where Ottman and Singer just let the camera roll on the actor. They don’t cut away or mess with anything. They just let the actor work the moment, and that is so important in a film with this kind of cast and enveloping dramatic story.
And this film does have an immensely powerful and amazing cast! Everyone is great, but I think Chazz Palminteri is my favorite. As Dave Kujan, he’s smart, sharp minded, and subtly charismatic. The range he shows here is impressive. Kujan can be laid back talking friendly with Sergeant Rabin or Agent Baer, but then, he can shift into the probing investigative mind trying to deconstruct Verbal’s story and psyche. Yet, he can turn it up further getting right into Verbal’s face, and trying shake him up with his intense, confrontational words. Kujan is a driven law enforcement agent, but he never lets his invested interest in Dean Keaton get the better of him. He keeps it all in check, and works the case to the very best of his ability. He just wants the full truth so he can lay that interest to rest. Chazz balances all these elements of Kujan perfectly. He shows wonderful chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with further solidifying his role as main protagonist. He really commands the screen, but Spacey owns it just as much with a more subtle performance.
Kevin Spacey truly deserved the numerous awards he received for this performance. It is very intelligent, but underplayed. Verbal is a little quirky and socially awkward. He rambles on, but Spacey works all these elements into every moment of the performance. It’s never an abrupt shift in focus for the character. It’s a cohesive whole of Verbal’s personality. It all has purpose, even more so on repeat viewings. The body language of Verbal is also greatly realized as Spacey did extensive research for the character’s cerebral palsy to get all of it right. It adds further to Verbal’s perceived weakness. His physical weakness begets his weakness of will. The splashes of emotion with fear, self-pity, and pain are very powerful making Verbal appear to be a very sympathetic character. Still, the moments of sharp intellect slip through Verbal’s more cowering exterior, and really help sell that he’s not as foolish or naive as he sometimes appears to be.
Gabriel Byrne is excellent as well. He greatly reflects Keaton’s struggle between the ex-convict and the man trying to be legitimate. How the system won’t let him be that better man now, and how it drives him back into being the man they expect him to be. While he tries to deny that he is not the man Dave Kujan claims he is anymore, he quickly falls back into being that man. It is who he is, and Byrne is able to show how Keaton is unable to contently balance those two parts of his being. It’s a man fighting his nature who seems more comfortable and confident as the man he doesn’t want to be. It’s a fascinating dynamic that Gabriel Byrne pulls off with great ease and a dark, mysterious, and foreboding depth. He’s electric on the screen, and is entirely compelling. You can never quite get a handle on what his objective or intentions are, and that makes Dean Keaton terribly intriguing. As Bryan Singer says on the commentary, “Gabriel is the most easily complex actor.”
The supporting cast adds further flavor to the film. Stephen Baldwin’s McManus is an arrogant, hard-up man with attitude and ego to spare. As he himself says, he believes that “there is nothing that can’t be done.” He truly believes that the reward is worth the risk, every time. He plays off of Benicio del Toro’s Fenster beautifully. Benicio takes a character that was, admittedly, nothing special on the page, and gave him a memorable, standout quality. He created a whole character out of next to nothing, and the performance really put him on the map. Kevin Pollack adds plenty of levity, but not without his own bolstering attitude as Todd Hockney. How he and McManus clash constantly gives the team dynamic some needed conflict and turbulence. These are guys who joined up out of happenstance, not because they’re friends. Even Keaton and McManus have conflicts like when meeting Peter Greene’s wonderful character of Redfoot. He’s a fence, a guy who can move and sell stolen goods to discrete buyers. Greene gives him a fine Los Angeles quality with his slightly flashly entourage and charismatic style. Still, he’s a tough guy who doesn’t take any crap when McManus starts chewing him out after a job goes awry. For whatever reason, Greene didn’t take a screen credit for this film. Regardless, I really love the vibe he brings with him. He adds a shady element into the story as he can appear friendly, but under the surface, he’s all about his own agenda. He doesn’t mind manipulating anyone or putting other people in danger as long as he gets what he needs in the end. John Ottman even throws in a distinct musical cue for his two appearances that I also love.
The late Pete Postlethwaite always delivered fantastic performances giving them his all. As Kobayashi, he is a great conduit for the mythic Keyser Soze. He conveys authority without force or confrontation. His words and tone carry all the weight that is needed. Kobayashi knows that what he has to say is enough to rattle these men, and doesn’t have to dress it up at all. He’s very straight forward and matter of fact, but still with a questionable quality. He seems legit enough, but he leaves enough suspicion and truth with these men to keep them on edge. Enough to scare them, but not enough to for them to leverage their way out. Postlethwaite underplays the role just enough making him threatening and foreboding enough without betraying the professional manner of the character. He is exceptionally effective.
Another great addition to the supporting cast is Giancarlo Esposito as FBI Agent Jack Baer. He has a very fine charisma and upbeat attitude along with a nice feel for old style film noir sensibilities. He fits in here smoothly. Dan Hedaya is entertaining and enjoyable as Sergeant Rabin. He’s a bit strung out, but that just adds a more hectic element to the character dynamics in that police station. He adds to the texture of a film already rich with great characters.
Keyser Soze is one of the most brilliant cinematic creations of all time. A crime lord that purports his own myth through the fears and exaggerated stories of others. He just lays the seeds for it, and allows it to grow to service his own advantage. He works from the shadows, never allowing anyone but an extreme few to ever see his face. Anyone else who works for him almost never knows that they are doing so, and anyone who thinks they are can never be certain that they are. As Kobayashi says, “One cannot be betrayed if one does not have any people.” A spook story for criminals is perfectly film noir. Soze is an urban legend. Something that is so hard to grasp the truth about that you doubt it, but you dare not dismiss it in case any of it might be true. I also love that the subject of Keyser Soze doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour into the film, but the mystery of him exists from the start. This allows the story, characters, and the world they inhabit to be firmly established and grounded in reality before this mythic figure is truly introduced. With the introduction of him, it elevates the tension and danger for everyone.
The story structure is also quite fascinating. You have both a mystery happening in the present time while the supposed back story of the mystery is being told by one character. However, the one character, Verbal Kint, is constantly challenged on information he held back from the District Attorney. Verbal is shown to be not entirely forthcoming, and abridging his tale to protect his own self. So, Kujan has to keep probing to get the full disclosure. Thus, while you are getting engrossed in Verbal’s story, every once in a while, the audience has to question just how authentic his storytelling is. However, as the pieces of the puzzle are slowly put together by Kujan, Baer, and Rabin, you can see there is some truth in what Kint is saying. A lie is most convincing when it’s wrapped in some truth, and that is the screenwriting brilliance of this film. Lies and truth get so intermixed that it is nearly impossible to separate them. I also love that the film opens with that docks scene which is objectively presented. It’s not part of Verbal’s narrative to Kujan, and so, you know that this did happen as you see it. It’s just a matter of how they got there.
For me, the re-watch value of The Usual Suspects comes, primarily, from the fantastic performances, but also, the strong film noir tone. This is an excellent example of film noir in a contemporary movie. The mystery elements are still compelling upon repeat viewings due to how well constructed and presented they are. It’s a film that allows to see new things and put new pieces together every time you watch it. They are subtle things, but if you’re watching it with a probing mind like Dave Kujan, you can weed out a little more of what is truth and what is not. Even the seemingly most throwaway expression or action can turnaround with a new meaning. However, it is a film I wish I could watch again for the first time. Partly because I don’t recall what my reaction to the film was originally watching it on VHS in 1996, but because it is so effectively structured and executed that I’d love to have that feeling of tension and apprehension which comes from a fresh first viewing. Plus, I believe I fell asleep in the middle of watching it the first time. So, that sort of spoils the experience.
The chemistry amongst the cast is just electrifying. Everyone slips nicely into their characters, and the dynamics between them are rich and vibrant. Everyone makes a firm impression that is quite memorable. That is not an easy feat with an ensemble cast, but Bryan Singer handled these heavyweights extremely well. When one has the talent for being an exceptional director, it will always shine through, and this could not have been a better first major impression for Singer to make. He had done some smaller films before this, but they were not truly in the public eye. This was his first major motion picture with serious, high profile acting talents. While he had only a $6 million budget, the talents involved elevate the overall technical and artistic quality of the picture. Looking back, while it doesn’t have quite as much scale as some are accustomed to, it’s not really a film that requires much. The action is conservative because it services the plot, but it is nicely handled. The entire sequence on the boat is expertly shot, choreographed, edited, and paced. Nothing gets lost in the process of bullets and explosions. Again, the plot and characters maintain control of the film’s focus throughout.
The Usual Suspects is just an excellent crime thriller that is atmospheric, exciting, and enthralling. There are very distinct and dimensional characters everywhere you look that make it an entertaining and intriguing narrative. Everyone behind the camera came together to create one amazing film that flowed beautifully and coherently allowing the pieces of the puzzle to slowly slip into place, but not give you a full picture. It leaves you thinking and wondering, and that is an excellent accomplishment for any mystery. You need not answer all questions for the story to be satisfying. It merely has to keep you hooked in with a cleverly written plot, and that is the foundation for what made this a great film. I give much respect to Christopher McQuarrie for writing such an intelligent script, and to Bryan Singer for crafting a film that remains entertaining and interesting no matter how many times I watch it.