Film Review: The Usual Suspects

In the final moments of the classic film Casablanca, at the airport, Rick, an American refugee, and sympathizer of the underground resistance to the Nazi movement, has just shot and killed Major Strasser of the Third Reich in the presence of Casablanca’s Chief of Police, Captain Renault. As other officers arrive on the scene Renault must make a choice: does he arrest Rick or let him go? “Major Strasser has been shot! Round up the usual suspects!” is what Renault comes out with, and away Bogie and Raines walk off at the start of a beautiful friendship. When recalling crafting the ending of the film, the scriptwriters referenced the fact that they loved the idea that Capitan Renault would have a group of guys, shady ruffians, common criminals, that could be rounded up at any time for interrogation about crimes in Casablanca. But what happens in the cell where Renault’s “suspects” are rounded up? What becomes of these guys? Some 50 years later, this concept was taken by Christopher McQuarrie in his cinematic masterpiece that launched the careers of Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, and Benicio Del Toro. If you haven’t seen this film, then you have missed one of Hollywood’s greatest triumphs in the last 25 years. The Usual Suspects turned the crime thriller on its side and invented the genre of modern super twist mysteries & cleared the landing strip for films such as Primal Fear, Fight Club, and Saw.

DJM, Going Postal
The Usual Suspects. Not.
The Usual Suspects recreated for the launch campaign of Neon magazine,
Ged Carroll
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

The plot of TUS is about 5 career criminals who are picked up by the police, interrogated about a truck heist, then, when left alone in a holding cell, form a crew. The film starts with the investigation of a botched drug buy, and an interview with the only survivor – Rodger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). As the story progresses, we are introduced to a cast of players: Former NYPD Detective turned criminal, Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne); sharpshooter and cold-blooded killer, Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin); hijacker and thief, Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak); and McManus’s mumbling sidekick, Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro).

As Kint lays out the happenings of these unfortunate misfits to Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) (*)the name of super-criminal “Keyser Soze” is mentioned, and the story takes a dark twist into the world of international organized crime. The crew then finds themselves caught up in a whirlwind downward spiral that leads them to take on the job of stealing 90 million dollars of cocaine for Soze, back from a group of Hungarian drug dealers. The drugs and the Hungarians are located onboard a ship. The details of the ship, and complete files on each of the “suspects”, are passed out to the crew by Soze’s lawyer, Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), as well as details on how each crew member has accidentally stolen from, or interfered with Soze in the past. Without giving away the many twists or spoilers, TUS is to criminal thrillers, what Silence of the Lambs was to FBI mysteries. This is one of those films where the pleasure is in the puzzle – trying to work out who’s lying, scanning every character’s every word and gesture for some clue as to which, if any, of the gang, might be Soze, or even whether he exists at all. An expertly rich and tantalising conceit is sustained throughout the film, the twists and turns of which recall Raymond Chandler at his best, as does the atmosphere of mistrust and betrayal, in a world-weary world where no matter how smart you are, someone’s always two steps ahead of you. But if this film was just an exercise in puzzle-solving, its appeal and interest would be much more limited. And, to be fair, some critics have dismissed it as just that. But they’re wrong, basically. The five flawed anti-heroes are projected as people, not just cyphers. Their twisted code of honour and professional pride dooms them to become further enmeshed in Soze’s web and expertly fashioned details make you root for them and want them all to come through unscathed – even when it becomes pretty clear that ain’t gonna happen…

And then there’s the cast, of course. With the possible exception of Reservoir Dogs, I can’t think of a film with so much perfectly-cast talent delivering such top-of-their-game performances. Spacey (bagging one of the film’s two Oscars) gives a wonderfully subtle and slippery turn as the nervous, crippled Kint, the very definition of an unreliable narrator. Keaton brings an exhausted pathos to his role as the bent cop constantly dragged back into a corrupt and violent world despite all his efforts to go legit, but also displays enough steely charisma and perception of his comrades’ foibles to leave you wondering if he could be the Stringpuller-General. Baldwin and Pollak, as the two blue-collar hard men constantly butting heads, strike some real sparks off each other, and Del Toro gives a real star-making turn as the sharp-suited, swaggering and unintelligible Fenster, exasperating friend and foe alike with rapid-fire mumblings that make Brando at his most-mocked sound like dear Johnny Gielgud. Even the support acts are peerless – Palminteri’s dogged and increasingly desperate lawman, Suzy Amis as Keaton’s long-suffering lawyer girlfriend (the film’s only female character, which is something of a flaw considering how important the ladies were to Chandler’s urban fables) and Postlethwaite, an English actor playing a character with a Japanese name delivering his lines in a Pakistani accent, as the mysterious lawyer Kobayashi.

DJM, Going Postal
The real Usual Suspects.
#nowwatching The Usual Suspects,
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

(*) Interesting to note that De Niro, Walken and Pacino all turned down the role of the cop interviewing Verbal. Pacino said it was the biggest regret of his career.

It is disparate elements like this that make TUS, unlike many twist-based offerings, reward repeated viewings. Tense, confusing, captivating, & entertaining, it delivers the first time & is even more fun the second time around when you try to connect the dots from your first experience, and that’s exactly when the film’s biggest strength is revealed. It’s so meticulously crafted with subtle placement of hints that it requires a bit of commitment from its audience but the reward in the end is incredibly fulfilling too. One of the defining works of 1990s cinema with a plot twist as legendary as Keyser Söze himself, The Usual Suspects comes warmly recommended to the Puffinati.


© DJM 2021

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