“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This fantastic line of dialogue, a quote from Charles Baudelaire, is uttered more than once by Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, and pretty much sums up Bryan Singer’s smashing crime picture, which was his second feature film after the little seen Public Access. And in my opinion, The Usual Suspects stands as his best, most satisfying film to date. It’s odd that after The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil that Singer became a blockbuster comic-book movie director (The X-Men, X-2, Superman Returns, Jack the Giant Slayer, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and X-Men: Apocalypse) with only 2008’s crisply efficient WWII thriller Valkyrie as the other traditional or realistic film that the filmmaker has attempted. Elegantly written by Christopher McQuarrie, The Usual Suspects is an example of low-budget neo-noir done correct, with a twisty, serpentine screenplay that never stops pulling the rug out from underneath the viewer until the very end, but most importantly, adds up and makes sense when all of the pieces are closely examined. McQuarrie’s previous background in private detective work and criminal law also bolstered the film’s authenticity, both in the spoken word and in the small details that fill the edges of this elaborately gripping thriller. And it’s one of those films with a doozy of a twist ending that at the time was nearly impossible to predict, even for the most astute of viewers. Part of that had to do with the relatively unknown quality that Spacey possessed 20 years ago (he’d go on to take the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his incredible work in Suspects), and part of it had to do with McQuarrie’s ultimately ingenious screenplay (for which he was bestowed the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), that tells a convoluted tale that all comes together in the final moments with striking clarity and immense narrative force.
The Usual Suspects is the story of five criminals, all pulled together to do a job for a mysterious gangster, known only by his now famous name, Keyser Soze. After we’re treated to a string of small jobs to establish each man’s particular set of skills, the group encounters a force to be reckoned with. All of the criminals have in one way or another screwed over Soze in previous crime related jobs, and now it’s time for them to repay him, or else. They are tasked with taking over a docked ship at the Port of Los Angeles, in an effort to secure and destroy $91 million dollars of heroin that Soze doesn’t want to end up in the hands of a rival criminal enterprise. Gabriel Byrne is the group’s stoic leader, Dean Keaton, a former corrupt cop who is trying to give up the life of crime in an effort to settle down with his lawyer girlfriend. Spacey is Roger “Verbal” Kint, a half-paralyzed con-man who sits in the office of detective Kujan (a fantastic and surly Chazz Palminteri) and spins a story about the group’s misgivings and various illegal operations and how they all ended up on the boat that left Kint’s entire crew dead or missing. Also rounding out the group are the volatile thief McManus (Stephen Baldwin), McManus’ partner Freddy Fenster (a baby-faced and hilariously accented Benicio del Toro), and Todd Hockney, a skilled hijacker played with crusty attitude by Kevin Pollak. Pete Postlethwaite showed up as the mysterious Kobayashi, Keyser Soze’s legal rep and business associate, and coerces the gang of criminals into the big job for his boss, which will either make them all rich or leave them all dead. Each actor is given more than one moment to shine, with Byrne cutting an imposing portrait of an angry, morally complicated man who while thinking he’s in control, is constantly reminded that he’s not. Baldwin delivered the best performance of his career (I know that’s not saying much!) and del Toro gets some of the film’s biggest laughs, due in no small part to his manner of speech and fun with the English language. But it’s Spacey who totally owns this picture, skillfully portraying a pathetic man who is in way over his head, but who as we all know by now, is really pulling the strings like a magician behind the curtain.
Shot with supreme, noir-drenched style by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (who would later go on to lens Three Kings, Drive, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, to name only a few), with dynamic editing and an absolutely propulsive musical score supplied by the uber-talented John Ottman (it’s insane to think about how many trailers have borrowed Ottman’s amazing musical cues from The Usual Suspects), The Usual Suspects succeeds as has visual flair AND dramatic substance, with a couple of action scenes thrown in to spice up the proceedings. But this film is mostly about its characters and how they speak and interact with one another, and how words are used as importantly, and as memorably, as guns, affording the picture a cerebral streak that allows it to tickle your brain every time you watch it. Singer patiently allows the non-linear story to unfold, never rushing anything, but also keeping the film moving at a brisk pace; there’s not one scene of narrative fat or superfluous style on this movie’s cold and calculating bones. It would be great to see Singer tackle something of this sort again, to see him go smaller and more sophisticated. Even the biggest of directors seem to want to change it up every now and again, so it’s curious to observe Singer’s career trajectory, and I think it’s sort of sad how Singer’s talents have really only been transferred to the world of popcorn escapism, because he’s clearly more talented than his later work implies. Shot in a reported 35 days on a budget of $6 million, it’s fascinating to think how Singer has never returned to the smaller-scaled waters of his absolute best film. And I love how the big finale is foreshadowed multiple times before it ever arrives; it’s a testament to everyone’s abilities that the twist was able to take almost everyone by surprise on their first viewing. Because upon further re-visits, you can see how Spacey was able to pull it all off, even noticing some discrepancies which would give away the big reveal if you’re able to spot these secret-breaking instances. I loved all of the dark humor, the tough-guy posturing, the rapid-fire nature of the dialogue, and how it’s the sort of film that obfuscates the truth for as long as humanly possible, and then when the big reveal comes, not only is not a cheat, but it’s something that elevates the film to a new realm, and makes for a wildly satisfying experience because you’re able to see how you were hoodwinked by the filmmakers.