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No. 3: “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

“A man can convince anyone he’s somebody else, but never himself.”
~~Verbal Kint

Most films are more about what leads up to the finale than the finale itself — the how, not the what. Nobody ever told Bryan Singer that, and so he directed “The Usual Suspects,” a labyrinthine teeth-kicker of a crime thriller where the end is what matters. Everything else is window dressing … but it so happens that Singer is one very fine interior decorator.

There’s no sense letting slip even one more peep about that ending, except to say that it does NOT inspire lukewarm reactions. (Think shock, uncontrollable rage, humiliation, disgust, abject hopelessness and self-pity — a veritable font of negative human emotions.) Best to defer to the Fight Club rulebook when it comes to those last five minutes of “The Usual Suspects”; in fact, don’t let anyone talk about any part of the movie in your presence, since there’s no such thing as an “insignificant detail” in this one. The less you know, the better. Understood?

With Act 3 off the docket, what’s left to discuss? Well, plenty, thanks to Singer’s remarkable eye for details and Christopher McQuarrie’s twisty, smarter-than-smart script. Herein lies the paradox: Although the end is paramount, the lead-up is where all the fun is. If you can call murder, mayhem and utter befuddlement “fun.” (Note: I do.) Have a chew of the setup, explained brilliantly by the movie’s tagline: “Five criminals. One lineup. No coincidence.” When a truck is hijacked, New York police haul in five familiar faces: McManus (Stephen Baldwin), the loose cannon con; Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’ partner; Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a crooked ex-cop whose cool facade hides his ruthless nature; Hockney (Kevin Pollak), who has two interests: money and himself; and Verbal (Kevin Spacey), a short con operator with cerebal palsy. The five decide to exact some sweet revenge on the cops, but the plan leads to an entanglement with Keyser Soze, a mythic, faceless figure with limitless power and unfathomable influence. Pulled in to investigate the revenge plot’s spiraling aftermath is U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), a smug man quite certain he’s in control of everything who’s none too happy to discover he knows absolutely nothing. He’s just a poor, clueless schmuck like the rest of us.

If this all sounds very high concept, that’s because, uh, it is, and arrogantly so. McQuarrie’s shooting for the ionosphere with this script, which contains so many turns that it takes multiple viewings to sort them out (and maybe not even then). The concept of linear action? Ha! Constant vigilence and attention to detail are requirements, not suggestions, just to follow along. But that’s hardly a flaw, since directors rarely assume this level of intelligence of their audiences.

Yet don’t go thinking Singer’s going to reward all this effort. If anything, his interest lies in teasing us, playing Chesire Cat to our Alice. He gives us no pieces, then the wrong ones (which sometimes turn out to be right), then the right ones (at the wrong time), then all of them tossed together like some crazy jumbled puzzle salad. It might be maddening if “The Usual Suspects” weren’t so darn cool-looking. The cinematography, with its looming darkness and shaded-just-so corners that conceal key details, adds to the tension beautifully. 

That whole “cool-looking” idea extends to the actors, who are cherry-picked. There was a time before Stephen Baldwin started boardin’ for the Lord and filed for bankruptcy. That time was 1995, and since then he has not come close to topping McManus. Benicio del Toro plays Fenster as something of a comedian, sporting an inexplicable accent that ends up being the film’s funniest running gag. Byrne, who’s never had to try very hard to be the coolest cat in the room, works the seething pit of inner rage angle perfectly, while Palminteri acts as a mirror for the viewers. And all take a backseat to Spacey, who turns in a mindhole-blowing performance as Verbal Kint. He reminds us that we must never, ever understimate him.

Make that mistake with “The Usual Suspects” and see how far it gets you.   

30 Responses

  1. its a great idea to go through your top 100 like this.
    usual suspects really is one of those perfect films that just comes along every once in a while
    i like the way the making of it resembled what was up on the screen – Gabriel Byrne took convincing, Kevin Pollak and Baldwin didnt get on and so forth

    • I really thought the movie tagline was as well done as the poster — it teases you with just enough information so that you think you can figure out what’s going on. Wrong. W-R-O-N-G.

  2. This is hands down what I consider my favorite “twist ending” film of all time. Very close second would be The Game and Time Crimes.

    Sensational movie if you ask me and I like that it’s very high on your Top 100. “Attention world: let it be known, M. Carter has great taste in film” 🙂

    I would love to see Singer and Ritchie collaborate on a movie. Ritchie’s twists and turns in sync with Singer’s rugged yet refined noir edge…that could be the stuff of legend.

    • Ooh … Singer and Ritchie — now that would a collaboration for the ages. If you threw it a little Fincher — eek. Too much awesomeness. My feeble brain cannot conceive of it!

  3. It is a truly great film but I have to disagree with Ross I’m not sure it is perfect. The end is mindblowingly (I know that’s not really a word!) satisfying the first time you see it but for repeated viewing would it have been better with a little more ambiguity leaving the viewer able to question what they have seen?

    • I’d have to agree with you, Fandango. The end, though FAN-FRIGGIN’-TASTIC the first time out, loses some punch the more you see it. Would more ambiguity help? I’m not sure. It would let us draw our own conclusions instead of doing it for us … then again, we wouldn’t have this great final 10 minutes. That’s a thinker.

    • I’d have to disagree on the “ambiguity” thing. I think there is “just about” enough ambiguity to make it interested, but not so much as to make the audience feel like they’ve been completely conned. A little conning is good, but too much makes an audience feel like the movie’s out to make them look stupid.

      Despite the “closure” that the final shot would seem to give on the movie’s central twist (I’m trying to be ambiguous here, in case someone who hasn’t seen the movie wanders in), there are cases to made for arguing that at least two other characters are the criminal mastermind in question. I go with Occam’s Razor – ie I believe what I see, despite the film’s warning to contrary -, but I could see any (or all) of the three possibly being the man who doesn’t exist.

      Hmm… Might be worth further consideration…

  4. THE. BOMB. You said it all M. Carter.


  5. I adore Gabriel Byrne, which was why I saw this film. But Spacey was fantastically creepy and blew everybody else out of the water. He should’ve won the Oscar for this instead of “American Beauty” IMO. This is Singer at his best, and yeah he and Ritchie’s collaboration sounds like a fine idea to me.

    • Spacey did win an Oscar for this AND American Beauty.

      • Spacey is the man, alright. He deserved it for “Usual Suspects,” but I’m not so sure he did for “American Beauty” — he was, after all, just being Kevin Spacey. At least in “Usual Suspects” he played a character very different from (how I suspect) he is in real life.

  6. Fandango… to me, a perfect movie is one where every scene is great and the whole thing just works brilliantly – Jaws i suppose is an obvious example.
    and i think that applies to the Usual Suspects – there isnt one bit of it where i think ‘this kinda sucks’ or ‘im bored of this scene’. although of course its all opinion really.
    i disagree with M Carter slightly when she says the ending IS the film – its so much more than a twist ending, which is why i disagree with both you guys when you say it loses impact on repeat viewings.
    It’s like when you go to a favourite restaurant to have that steak you love – just because youve had it before doesnt stop it from tasting just as sweet.
    unlike say The Sixth Sense and practically every lame thriller these days, the twist isnt the heart of the movie.
    which is why i think its unfair to call it a ‘twist movie’.
    in fairness though, Aiden R sums it up so much better than my rantings and ravings with ‘THE. BOMB.’
    wow, never expected to find myself defending the Usual Suspects so much, considering it’s below Wayne’s World and Point Break in my own top 100…

    • I do see your point McG. Don’t think I don’t watch this movie regularly — I’d estimate I watch it once or twice a year, maybe more. I find new things to love about it every time, but the dew’s off the rose about the ending.

  7. “Although the end is all that matters, the lead-up is where all the fun is.”

    And there you have it in a nutshell.

    The end of this movie just made everything that happened up to that point an amazing payoff. It isn’t one of those flicks where the end is everything.

    And this is one of my favorite Kevin Spacey performances (of course, how could you REALLY narrow it down?). I just effing love this movie to pieces.

    Utter cinema bliss!



    • It’s kind of strange because I do feel like the end is all that matters. Also it isn’t. That makes no sense, and I know that, but I feel like if the end was different “The Usual Suspects” wouldn’t be what it is. It’s like a big “suck on that” to everything that came before and everything we thought we knew.

  8. love this movie and it so deserves the top spots, how Singer directed this movie is so amazing, he managed to get the right actors all-around for The Usual Suspects… noticed that many people forget to mention the amazing performance of Pete Postlethwaite as Kobiashy (hmm not sure I got the name right..). Love his straightforward performance.

    And Del Toro as Fenster, outstanding, read something that apparently Fenster did just have one or two lines so he just made up this accent so at least he would be remember for something in the movie… small part but hilarious all the same.

    And yes, I got the DVD and have watched it over and over. Never mind the ending really but love the performances from the actors…

    • Postlewaithe has that kind of unusual face that gets him these kinds of parts — the straight man parts. But yes, he was very good. I am always happy to see directors who let Benicio del Toro be funny because he is a fine comic actor (re: the long-forgotten “Excess Baggage”). That’s how I know he will be so good in the Farrelly brothers’ Three Stooges pic.

  9. Another good review, M. One wonders, however…is there really anyone in the universe who would be browsing movie blogs who doesn’t already know the ending? Or at least has heard enough whispers to put the pieces together ten minutes in? The ending is SO good that I wonder if it has escaped pop culture status and remains pristine. (The “Rosebud” Effect)

    Ironically enough, I just reviewed a Stephen Baldwin film called “Shark in Venice” on my site. You should check it out. It seems Stephen is in the air these days.

  10. I have never seen this movie and I’m absolutely terrified of it. I’ve almost never heard anything but very high praise for it. I’d hate to watch it and feel let down.

    • Then watch it. Watch it now. There’s a countdown on this movie from the moment anyone mentions it to the moment that somebody says something (small, large, obvious) which ruins the viewing experience of somebody else who hasn’t seen it.

      • How true that is. Friends kept talking to me about “The Usual Suspects” before I saw it and they kept almost ruining the ending. I finally had to say “don’t tell me anything!” and watch it before the whole thing was ruined.

    • It lives up to the hype, believe me. I’ve never met anyone who saw it and wasn’t blown to pieces by the ending.

  11. […] September 23, 2009 by Darren This post is somewhat prompted by an interesting discussion over at MCarter’s review of The Usual Suspects, concerning the ending. Some people remarked that while they were impressed […]

  12. […] 27, 2009 by fandangogroovers M. Carter @ The Movies started all this by writing a review of The Usual Suspects, No. 3 on her list of favourite movies. I then acted as a catalyst by suggesting the film would […]

  13. This is an example of a film in which my entire opinion changed within thirty seconds. Up until the final revelation, I was thinking that it was just an okay film, but when I realized what was happening, I was completely blown away. I’ve never had that many goosebumps on my arms at one time.

  14. […] M. Carter @ the movies: Because she’s made of win. Because her review of The Usual Suspects got me thinking about that ending for perhaps the post I’m most proud […]

  15. […] “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a […]

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