Film Review: The Usual Suspects (1995)

In the mid-90‘s, before Hugh Jackman grew out the mutton chops and long before Superman would return to an apathetic public, an outrageously young director named Bryan Singer would craft a small film called The Usual Suspects. Not only did Suspects become critically and commercially successful (allowing Singer to unleash the first of what would be an endless stream of Marvel movies) it turned a then relatively unknown actor named Kevin Spacey into a star and cemented the name Keyser Soze into the annals of popular culture.

“Who is Keyser Soze?” This is the line that runs like a refrain throughout Singer’s enormously entertaining film. After an attack on a ship containing nearly $100 million dollars in cocaine money, 20 people lie dead, with the boat a smoking wreck. Gruff, no-nonsense customs agent, David Kujan, (played with biting vigor by Chazz Palminteri) attempts to unravel the events and motivations leading up to the case with the help of a quiet, blank-faced cripple named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey in his Oscar-winning role). The story that Kint concocts provides the film with its cross-cutting structure, which oscillates between Kint’s involvement with the group of career criminals (Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollack, Benicio Del Toro, and Stephen Baldwin – all excellent) who would eventually pull the boat job and Kujan’s subsequent investigation of Kint.

Kint’s story traces the events that led up to the boat attack, the aftermath of which we see in the opening of the film. Following a New York City hijacking the five “usual suspects” mentioned above are all assembled in a police line-up. When the police can’t prove that any of them are actually responsible the men join forces to plan revenge against the police who have persecuted them. After a period of successful criminal activity the men are suddenly contacted and manipulated by a mysterious lawyer named Kobayashi, who is under the employ of a mythical and enigmatic criminal mastermind known only as “Keyser Soze.” Through a mixture of strong-arm tactics and emotionless posturing Kobayashi bullies the suspects into the boat assault, but as the dust settles the survivors and the cops must confront the ultimate query: Who or what is Keyser Soze?

Singer’s film, which on the surface conforms strongly to your standard neo-noir formula, is profoundly deepened by Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint and through the film’s careful construction of the Keyser Soze concept. Spacey’s acting is truly the definition of sublime. It is a highly layered performance with Verbal being presented as meek, ineffective and passive, yet also disturbingly Machiavellian at the same time. Without his presence and Christopher McQuarrie’s shrewd Oscar-winning screenplay the film would risk becoming little more than a rather trite and soulless exercise in superficiality, with the general plot resembling a wearisome recycling of countless film-noir conventions and essentially all the characters (minus Spacey) being about as three-dimensional as a vanilla wafer.

However, the evocation of the Soze concept – as facilitated by Spacey’s Verbal Kint- allows the film to truly distinguish itself from its noirish predecessors. The idea of Soze’s influence on the central plot of the film allows the story to broaden its scope. It creates the impression that we are watching a world that is being completely manipulated by a domineering, ubiquitous and omnipotent force of sheer criminality (something that would even make a character like Christopher Nolan’s Joker run for cover). This effect is highlighted by characters striving to classify or articulate a representation of the Soze concept. Palminteri’s somewhat hapless investigator believes that one of the “usual suspects” is actually Soze in disguise while Kint depicts him in more abstract terms, as something spectral that hangs over the criminal community.

In the end the later interpretation of the concept seems to be more accurate. While the film’s infamous twist ending, which is partially responsible for the tidal wave of twist ending films released in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, ostensibly formulates a definitive stance on who Soze is supposed to be and is indeed very powerful, other interpretations remain valid. It’s very possible that Soze is no more a member of “usual suspects” gang than he is the vindictive Hungarian monster that the film depicts in whirling yellowish tones during one of Kint’s anecdotes. Keyser Soze could possibly represent the idea of ubiquitous, unstoppable criminality or, as Kevin Spacey eloquently stated in his Academy Award acceptance speech: Soze stands as the metaphysical concept for those who manipulate others from the shadows to serve their own ends.

So perhaps then it is the film’s creators who are most appropriately fitted to wear the title of “Keyser Soze.” From the biting and humorous dialogue of Christopher McQuarrie to Singer’s stylish transitions (countless match-cuts pervade the film) the film’s production team pulls off an excellent aesthetic and delivers an exciting, funny and disturbing picture. Also, in the picture and audio quality of its BluRay transfer the film becomes even more involving (with the opening scene fireballs seeming so vivid that they feel like they are literally exploding off the screen). The filmmaking team headed by Singer is the true wearer of Keyser Soze title because through their efforts they draw an audience into this convoluted world of deceit, criminality, and nefarious masterminds, manipulate our emotions and suddenly, as Verbal Kint would say, “like that, they’re gone.”

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