The Usual Suspects (1995)

The Usual Suspects (1995) – I tend to be amused by those Robot Chicken sketches where a heavily-accented M. Night Shyamalan jumps out and says “Vhat a tvist!” (Worth noting that in real life Shyamalan has a thoroughly American accent…) Good ol’ Night is widely credited with ushering in the age of the twist ending. They were certainly nothing new but soon a lot of movies where rushing to blow their audiences’ minds and radically change the entire movie that preceded them. Most failed miserably. Like sub-standard 90s Outer Limits level failure (or my favorite horror-themed Twilight Zone rip-off, Night Visions). Occasionally you had a Fight Club or a The Sixth Sense, but most of them were pretty mediocre. Twist endings go back as far as storytelling, but I would argue the “age of the twist” began with The Usual Suspects, and few movies have executed them as well. Of course, if you haven’t seen the movie, I’ve just spoiled for you that there is a twist. Once you KNOW there’s a twist, you go looking for the twist and if you’re looking for it a twist ain’t exactly hard to find. I actually read a study last year or so that people actually enjoy reading stories more when they have already been “spoiled.” A story is about the journey more than the destination. If you know where the end is going you can take greater pleasure in seeing the carefully-laid groundwork that leads to that payoff in the end. If you’re still sore about the pseudo-spoilage… well, you’ve had 19 fucking years to see this movie so it’s your own damn fault.

The movie opens “last night” with a murder and an explosion on a boat. Then we get the fallout (“today”). FBI Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) is investigating the boat incident, which appears to be a drug deal gone bad. Meanwhile a disabled criminal from New York named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey, who won an Academy Award for this role) is one of the only survivors and is being interrogated by a Customs Agent named Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). Kint begins to relate the story of how things got to the boat. It begins with a police lineup. A truck of guns get hijacked and the police arrest five men: a disgraced former corrupt cop back from having faked his own death named Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a bullying criminal named Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and his unintelligible partner-in-crime Fred Fenster (Benecio Del Toro), an explosives expert named Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), and Kint. Nothing can be proven about who hijacked the truck (and it’s revealed in a later scene almost as a humorous afterthought) but you get five criminals together and soon enough you get them plotting crimes. Keaton has allegedly gone totally straight, dating a high-powered attorney (Suzy Amis) and trying to break into the restaurant business, but a leopard can’t change his spots. He’s in for just “one job.” But it’s never just one job is it? Soon the gang finds themselves confronted by a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) who claims to work for Keyser Soze, the most infamous criminal legend of the underworld… and he has business for out five hapless crooks.

The ending is masterfully done and serves as a testament to the writing of Christopher McQuarrie (who also won an Oscar for writing this film) and the direction of Bryan Singer (later of X-Men fame and also some infamy… which shall be addressed in another article). As much attention as the ending gets, though, the whole movie is really well done. That ending would not work at all without the careful details arranged over the preceding hour and forty minutes. All five of our key actors create characters that are instantly memorable. Del Toro, given the least to work with script-wise, decided to give his character the most impenetrable accent he could manage just to give the movie some more flavor. At one point in the movie Pollak asks “What did he just say?” This was not a scripted line, but Pollak breaking character because he did not know what the fuck Del Toro had just said (and therefor what he should say next). They just left it in the film. (Another great ad lib comes in the lineup scene.) As for the twist… I saw it coming. No one had spoiled it for me but I first saw the movie a couple years after it came out so I knew there was A twist. The trick of the unreliable narrator has been used enough before and since that I saw it coming. That did not reduce my enjoyment of this film one bit. Movies like this one, or Fight Club, are movies that people watch over and over again to pour over the details. To figure out all the reasons we should have seen it coming.

“And just like that… he’s gone!”

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