The Usual Suspects (1995) / Mystery-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence, drug references and strong language
Running time: 106 min.

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Giancarlo Esposito, Suzy Arnis, Dan Hedaya
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie

Review published August 25, 2007

The Usual Suspects is one of those rare thrillers where the more you think you know, the less you truly do.  Essentially, it's all a big mind game movie, seemingly placing all of its emphasis on an intricate plot to reel you in, when all the while, it aims to pull the rug right out from under you.  How much you enjoy the film as a whole will most likely depend on how much you think the nifty end of the film makes the previous 90+ minutes of convoluted plot retrospectively fascinating. A few will suggest it negates the entire set-up's existence, although many more will rank it as one of the best told mysteries in film history. 

I fall somewhere right in between on this one.  I do think it entertaining, particularly in the second half, once the Keyser Soze storyline emerges, but I can't really say that I think it a great movie as a whole, despite finishing strong.  The first hour of the film isn't particularly gripping, with a great deal of name-dropping of characters that can be hard to follow for those not paying attention.  Of course, those who know what eventually happens will know that following all of these characters and names doesn't really matter, although many will end up watching it more than once to scour for little tells and pieces of the puzzle that suggests something more to the story than what appears on the surface.  Perhaps there is, here and there, but I'm not close to being convinced yet that The Usual Suspects is some sort of modern noir masterpiece, as its rabid fans contest.

The film starts somewhere in the middle, with a harbored cargo ship being set ablaze by a mysterious presence who has apparently killed just about everyone on board.  The cops suspect a drug deal gone bad, as the millions of dollars worth of coke said to be on board is missing, and no traces of who committed the heinous deed and why.  The sole key witness to the events is "Verbal' Kint (Spacey, Consenting Adults), a mousy Cerebral Palsy victim who claims not to be a rat, but can't resist spilling all the details, especially since he's been granted immunity. It seems that he and four other notorious criminals banded together to pull off a major job, succeed, then get embroiled into another while out in California.  It is there that they become ensnared in a "bigger fish" scenario whereby they must follow through on plans as dictated by the unseen criminal mastermind Keyser Soze, rumored to be the most vicious and powerful kingpin in the world.

The aspect that keeps many viewers coming back for endless repeats is the fact that the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun, Public Access) blends fact and fiction in such a way that it becomes entertaining just trying to discern which pieces of the puzzle are fact and which are fiction.  This is also one of the more maddening things about the film as well, as the fact that we aren't ever sure if there is enough evidence either way to make any firm conclusions, although we might always think we're on the verge of figuring it all out.  It would be easy to dismiss everything one sees as a complete fabrication, and yet, we never feel comfortable in doing so; the plot is intricate enough to think that there is something of substance there.  And yet, we can't quite believe anything with absolute certainty either.  Yes, it is truly maddening and absorbing at the same time.

While the plot itself might be called tightly wound, the attitude of the cast is quite loose, so even if the actual story proves difficult to always follow, the interplay among the characters is entertaining enough to keep the plot explanations from becoming a sure slog-fest.  The casting is curious, benefiting from proven performers like Spacey (in an Oscar-winning performance), Byrne (Little Women, Dead Man) and Palminteri (Bullets Over Broadway, A Bronx Tale) to add credibility in the key roles, while the supporting cast consists of actors primarily playing for laughs or macho posturing, such as Del Toro's (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Traffic) unintelligible delivery, Pollak's (Clean Slate, A Few Good Men) attempt at playing a bad-ass, and Baldwin's (Slap Shot 2, Shelter Island) incessant quipping.  The technical specs are top notch, with a rich score by John Ottman (The Cable Guy, Lake Placid) complementing the moodiness of Newton Thomas Sigel's (Blankman, Fallen) cinematography perfectly.

Of course, by the end of the film, you realize all of these things are the result of one big shell game dealt by the hands of people good at what they do, and despite the spottiness of the first half and some of the more artificial elements, The Usual Suspects succeeds at what it sets out to do -- fool everyone.  While I may hedge quite a bit in my final proclamation as the the film's greatness, I can't deny admiring the audaciousness of the presentation, even if I come away detached to the film on any emotional level.  People will watch this endlessly, trying to connect all of the dots, but I suspect the greatest trick McQuarrie and Singer (X-Men, X2) ever pulled was in convincing the cinematic world that enough dots exist to make a complete picture.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo