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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.