The Twisted Usual Suspects

When I heard about the Blind Spot Series blogathon over at The Matinee I knew I would participate this year. I loved the idea of concentrating on 12 foreign and classic movies that every movie lover must see. My list for 2014 is here and I’ve included some modern misses and Asian films from my watchlist as well. As a modern classic The Usual Suspects blindsided me with its twisted opening scene…

Blind Spot Series Logo 2014

You hear a lot about a movie. It becomes a cult classic. Many people ask, always with an incredulous edge to their voice, “You haven’t seen: fill in the blank with a modern classic! You must see it!” I always get the subtext, ‘Where have you been? On another planet? Keep up with the times, geeze.’ Such is the case with the 1995 crime thriller, The Usual Suspects.

Yes, I’ve finally seen it. So I loved it, right?

Here’s the problem. One of these many people who are so incredulous decided that since I hadn’t bothered to see such a modern classic that she’d tell me about it. In minute detail. Yes, including the plot twist. So I had the unique handicap advantage of experiencing a movie for the first time while simultaneously having a case of “re-watch” blues.

As with all things with a lot of hype attached to it, a movie can be put on such a high pedestal that once you get it within reach (i.e. you get to see said movie) that you find it’s not really in a good part of town anymore. That is not true for The Usual Suspects though. There are many elements of the film that are five star.

The Usual Suspects - Pete Postlethwaite

FIVE STAR ACTING

For the first time ever, Kevin Spacey wowed me. I can see why this role jettisoned him out of obscurity. I particularly loved the two deliberately smug looks Verbal shot at the customs agent. They were so perfectly timed that they felt like perfectly natural reactions during the course of their dialogue. At the same time, when we look back, these two moments were clearly understood as the only moments Keyser Söze, the mastermind, had given himself to gloat.

The rest of the cast was of the same caliber. (Pete Postlethwaite in particular makes me want to hunt down his Filmography to watch him in action.) Hands down five star acting.

FIVE STAR TWIST

Nevertheless, a movie, at its heart, is a story. It is a story really before it is anything else. The premise is only a hope of a movie, it’s not until the story is written that the movie can be born. If I were talking about a film I’d seen with fresh eyes, back in 1995 sitting in front of a theater screen excited at the idea of a crime thriller then I very well could have been blindsided by this twist. Influenced by the setting and circumstances my thoughts on the story would have been informed by the twist alone.

I’ll never know.

Many times a twist will save a movie from any flaw. That’s because the audience loves to reward those that can truly surprise them. Hands down five star twist.

The Usual Suspects Lineup

FIVE STAR PACING

An impressive element of the movie that you don’t notice at first is the pacing of the story. In reality, The Usual Suspects is a dialogue rich film but it feels like an action movie. Pondering this I can attribute part of this to the way the story is woven. The non-linear story line keeps you off-balance, you aren’t really sure what you are seeing or what it relates to. It’s also cutting back and forth with a speed that prevents you from thinking about the implications of events too much. Many writers and directors attempt this style and fail.

Much can be laid at the door of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel whose dialogue shots in particular have this sense of energy and movement despite the characters not moving an inch. You feel as if you are in the same space as the characters. Hands down five star cinematography.

The Usual Suspects - Kevin Spacey

THE FLAW

As a storyteller I respect the story at the heart of The Usual Suspects. For only his second screenplay to win an Academy Award for Best Writing Original Screenplay, is no small feat for Christopher McQuarrie. It’s no surprise people were wowed between the acting, the premise and the pacing The Usual Suspects is a five star movie.

My problem with the film arose because I had no one to root for.

I really liked Keaton from the get go. I didn’t really care how many people he’d killed or even that he went back to the business. We love reluctant heroes all the time and Gabriel Byrne played off that role well. Yet in the opening frames of the movie we clearly see that he’s murdered by some shadowy figure. Oh, but he could be Söze and…

Let me interrupt you.

No way could anyone but Verbal be Keyser Söze. We have the two partners that have worked together many, many years. Everyone knew so. It rules out Michael McManus and Fred Fenster immediately. They were always the patsy to introduce the lure job.This leaves Todd Hockney of the hot temper, who could be Söze except for the fact his temper had gotten him into hot water many, many times. Again, known by multiple characters as well as the cops. So right off the bat we start out knowing Keyser Söze could only be Keaton or Verbal.

I loved the idea presented halfway through the film that Söze’s identity could be Keaton. It would have made me care more about the end result and added tension to the whole proceedings. The flaw was in starting the movie with Keaton’s death scenes.

The Usual Suspects - Cast Keaton at Head

AUDIENCE SATISFACTION

We were hearing the story from the point of view of Verbal. No one but Verbal. Events could be true or could be false depending on whether he was Söze or not. If he’s not Söze then why lie? If he is Söze then he has an ulterior motive for some of the details he included, especially a death scene that, from the beginning, we think no one saw except for the villain and the hero.

These scenes throw a wrench into the story: they had to be real because they started the movie. They are the foundation we built the whole story on top of, if they were false then there would be a distinct lack of satisfaction at the end.

Why included them at all? The writers got too caught up in twisting the story and twisted one step too far.

Because of that scene, I was never tempted to believe the villain was anyone else but Kevin Spacey’s Verbal. Personally, that wide-eyed look of his would have aroused my suspicions. Even Keaton didn’t really know much about him. Verbal is a cussing storm career criminal one minute then later he doesn’t know the biggest urban legend criminal in the underworld?

Yeah, right.

I would have believed the character more if he’d told the story about Söze, blurting it out and running over what anyone else said in some pseudo innocent manner. Many times we believe the messenger can’t be the villain because why show his hand so willingly?

Sure, Söze didn’t have to be one of the main guys, but how else to keep a finger on what’s happening? If there had been problems along the way that weren’t pre-thought out then I might give that thought some credence. When you rely on a minion things can go wrong, but no, events played out too smoothly for him to be anyone other than one from within the group. Also this story hinged on audience satisfaction. Just as the opening scene had to be real, Keyser Söze had to be one of the characters we were introduced to during the course of the story. Anything else would have disappointed the audience.

The Usual Suspects Poster Header

I know what you’re saying now – that I knew who Keyser Söze was from the beginning. Yes. That irritated me even more because I didn’t even get to enjoy the twist ending. I would have worked out the twist way before the end of the film, but at least I could have enjoyed it! As it is I got shafted with the twisted puzzle of The Usual Suspects with none of the twisted pleasure.

 How do you feel about The Usual Suspects? Have you re-watched the movie recently? Do you enjoy twist endings? Do you think The Usual Suspects is a modern classic?
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4 responses to “The Twisted Usual Suspects

  1. Interesting. I didn’t love this movie either but for other reasons… Or were they? It’s true, you never root with anyone. But also, I didn’t find it all that suspenseful. What saved it for me were the actors and the twist, which I didn’t know before.

    • The actors were stellar. I’m glad I watched The Usual Suspects simply to fall for Kevin Spacey!

      I liked that you pointed this out: “But also, I didn’t find it all that suspenseful.” Many movie lovers talk about lack of suspense or similar emotional responses. As a writer I’ve learned these can almost always be attributed to a lack of character sympathy (i.e. character to root for). When the audience doesn’t care about any of the characters how can there be tension, suspense or stress about the events happening?

      Many times a twist will save a movie because the audience becomes a character in the movie – we are being duped by the filmmaker after all… I don’t really subscribe to this kind of manipulation but it has it’s place in storytelling.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. Pingback: Blind Spot Movies 2014 | Perspective of a Writer·

  3. Pingback: Blindsided by MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective·

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