Blog Directory CineVerse: The understated (and underrated) genius of "The Usual Suspects"

The understated (and underrated) genius of "The Usual Suspects"

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

by Camiele White

(Note: This is a guest blog written by a fan of our site.)

The best trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

What can be said about a film that personifies the very essence of smooth? There are those films that are recognised for their exceptional plot, powerful cast, for their undeniable cinematographic excellence. Very rarely have there been films that have eagerly, and with style, embraced every aspect of film, giving the industry a taste of something truly spectacular. The Usual Suspects is a film that defies expectation, scoffs at clichés, and challenges an established order while still being an affair that both entertains and intrigues.

I won’t over-saturate this blog with clichés; I won’t give you a bunch of colloquialisms to describe the mastery of this film. Without having to go there, anyone can understand the beauty of this film. Every time you watch it, it continues informing you of its majesty. Forget a fine wine; this film is a straight double shot of Tequila --bright and voluptuous like the lady she resembles, but also rough and full of fire like the aftertaste of the Devil’s kiss.

With all its charm and sophistication, The Usual Suspects was a film that was destined to either stand the test of time as one of the most brilliant experiences captured on celluloid or to fade away in the annals of films that were good, but far from memorable. Fortunately, director Bryan Singer had enough foresight to do away with the pretentiousness of such films as Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind and just give viewing audiences the pleasure of a film that only plays up its cinematography when the mood and space calls for harsh atmosphere.

Well, one can’t have adulation without giving some sort of reference. The first scene immediately sets the tone for what the audience is to experience: we’re on a docked boat in San Pedro. We see a faceless man in a trench coat and Fedora. He’s walking menacingly towards an injured man. The two have a short conversation before the injured man is shot to death and the boat set ablaze. The injured man is an exceptional con artist named Keaton. The faceless murderer: Keyser Söze.

From this point our story develops into something quite unexpected.

The narrator and star witness of our tale is an unfortunate cripple affectionately (or scathingly) known as “Verbal” (played with chilling authority by Kevin Spacey) --despite his shortcomings in stature and physical strength, he most certainly has an astoundingly loquacious gift. Before we leave the pier, we are given a slowly creeping close-up of a pile of ropes and ship fodder behind which sits our cowering storyteller. Throughout the film Verbal regales us with the adventures of this group of miscreants, led by Dean Keaton (played with sophistication by Gabriel Byrne) and including Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack).

I don’t want to trouble you with the entire plot of the film --if you’re up on your film history, you’ll have already seen this masterpiece. However, there are a few moments in the film that truly mark it as one of the greats. One of the most iconic is actually a film reel blooper that became ultimately became part of the finished product. The now infamous line-up scene in which each man is asked to step forward and repeat the line “Hand me the keys, you f---ing c---sucker!”

Fenster speaks some sort of mangled English, a characteristic del Toro adopted to add to Fenster’s awkward smoothness. During the shooting, Fenster steps forward and before he even gets the line out, begins to do his partners in crime. This scene had been started and stopped numerous times before Singer finally just went with it, creating one of the most hilariously brilliant scenes in cinematic history.

Of course, one can’t forget Verbal’s account of how the infamous Keyser Söze became so infamous. As a low-level dope runner, Söze wasn’t much to through a parade over. But, this, we find out, was simply his way of managing his anger and moving it towards something truly magnanimous down the line. A group of notorious bandits comes shattering through his world in an attempt to demand that he give over his business to them --they rape his wife and threaten his children.

When Söze walks in on the scene of his ravaged wife and frightened kids, the leader of the group immediately slits the throat one of his son to let him know that they meant business. So what does Söze do in retaliation? He shoots two of the hitmen without hesitation. The leader then grabs Söze’s daughter and puts the knife to her throat. At this point, you’d expect any man to cede defeat --not the Keyser. Instead, as Verbal tells us, “he showed these men of will what will really was.” He shoots his wife and his remaining children. Before he lets the leader of the pack go, he says “I’d rather see my family dead than live another day after this.”

Thus spoke Keyser Söze.

The Usual Suspects also produced one of the most twisted and mind-blowing scenes to ever hit the big screen. After telling his story in defence of his good friend, Keaton, Verbal is finally allowed to leave the police station. This is where the film gains its reputation as one of the most cleverly shot and acted in the world. Verbal, along with his unbelievable gift of gab, also has a keen eye for detail and an intelligence that most underestimate. While weaving his tale of what happened in San Pedro on that boat pier, Verbal has connected dots with details about the FBI office in which he’s being interrogated. From where the tacky board was manufactured (Skokie, IL) to the type of coffee mug (Kobayashi) that US Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (played convincingly in style by Chazz Palminteri) is drinking from.

Each little nuance, each minute idiosyncrasy that even the trained eye would miss plays a part in the tapestry woven by Kevin Spacey’s Verbal. I don’t want to ruin the surprise; however, the mastery of the script, beauty of the photography, and the genius of the acting culminated in an ending that shocked audiences across the board --M. Night Shyamalan could learn a thing or two about plot twists. What Night attempts to set up in an entire movie (sometimes hitting, others missing), Singer manages to accomplish in the last five minutes of the film.

It makes one wonder about the artistry of the craft. Filmmakers are always, it seems, striving to win the ardour of a prestigious group of viewers that may or may not exist. I wonder if, perhaps, it’s possible to forget about the process and let the beauty unfold right in front of you --no pretence, no expectation. What if, my dear hearts, we were allowed to view something that had all the technical merit of am award-winning film but delivered a chill so unexpected that not even someone privy to the world of plot twist would be able to figure it out? What if we were all being put in the miraculous situation of being nothing more than serendipitous bystanders to a scene that was planned for us? The Usual Suspects forces the audience to accept that they are nothing more than puppets in the plot to disrupt the madness of expectation --expect the world to become a better place by the end? The ruthless truth is nothing is ever as straightforward as we’d like it to be.

Perhaps the most astonishing turn of events has yet to be played out for us. The Devil is smiling and holding the strings taut. Perhaps the best trick the Devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he didn’t exist. Perhaps it was convincing the world to do his bidding for him.

And just like that [poof], he’s gone.

With bags under my eyes I write this. Films have the hypnotic tendency to take the sleep right out of me. Because of this, I have the curious habit of writing out screenplays in my sleep. Part of my fascination with film has bled over into the blogging world. From Korean horror to Ninja flicks, I keep myself awake watching and writing. Right now, I get my jabberjaw jollies writing about costumes for Halloween. If you want to give me a buzz, I can be reached at

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