The Usual Suspects, by Albert W. Vogt III

For those dedicated fans of The Usual Suspects (1995), there is nothing bad you can so about the film. Still, I am not sure why would would ever watch it a second time. I saw it once years ago, but before this I learned the big secret about the film that makes it kind of anticlimactic to see a second time. Look, this film is twenty-five years old now. That is a quarter of a century, sheesh. Spoiler alert: Roger “Verbal” Kint (Keven Spacey) is Keyser Söze. There, I said it. When this movie came out all those years ago, people were seemingly losing their ever-loving minds over this big reveal, comparing it to when Darth Vader told Luke Skywalker that the galactic villain was the young Jedi’s father in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. The reason I bring up these two films together is they both contain a surprise that I feel is enough a part of the zeitgeist today that I feel comfortable spoiling it in this review.

As all good reveals do, The Usual Suspects waits until the end to let the audience in on the fact that the unassuming, apparently weak Verbal is the deadly criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. I will give it credit for at least getting to this point cleverly, if also somewhat opaquely. The bulk of this . . . heist? Drug deal? Terrorist plot? is mostly told in flashback by Verbal while sitting in police headquarters. I never quite understood the overall point of the various activities. That is not the clever part. Rather, it is the fact that it is all told from Verbal’s perspective, and this is key. There had been an explosion at a dockyard, which we see at the beginning with Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) being shot by a shadowy figure who then blows up a boat. Cut back to a collection of other scofflaws, Keaton among them, being picked up by the police for some armored truck job, hence the title to this movie. As they sit in a holding cell, a new job is revealed that they all want in on. All, that is, except for Keaton, who had given up his former ways in order to become a legitimate business owner. However, the others feel like they need him because of his reputation as an adept lawbreaker. They put enough pressure on him, as well as incentivizing him with the allure of supposedly easy riches, to the point where he eventually agrees. And because they seemed to work well together, they decide to continue to do so, which attracts the attention of Keyser Söze. Or so Verbal says. The officers he weaves this tale to believe that Keaton is the real mastermind, not the supposed cripple before them, and they want him to prove their theory correct. According to Verbal, it was Keyser Söze that led them all to the ship where they were supposed to stop a drug shipment and steal some money. It is during this that they are all killed one-by-one. If it seems like I am glossing over aspects of this story, it is because it is hard to know what is real. When you get to the end of it and Verbal is allowed to leave, having been given immunity for his testimony, the lead investigator, Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) takes a moment to reflect. He looks over at a cork board in the office and realizes that important elements in the yarn spun by Verbal were lifted from observing objects in the room. Agent Kujan had been played. Simultaneously, a police sketch of Keyser Söze from a survivor of the explosion arrives at police headquarters, and we see Verbal’s patented limb straighten out before he disappears into the crowd. Thus he has gotten away with . . . something.

I suppose one can commend The Usual Suspects for fooling everyone with its dog and pony show of a plot. There is a telling line from Verbal that speaks to how mislead were not only the police in the film, but society in general. At one point when Agent Kujan expresses incredulity over the existence of Keyser Söze, and Verbal responds by reminding the agent how the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world that he did not exist. In a sense, this can be applied to both God and the devil, at least in terms of the evil one’s diabolical antics. And while most of what Verbal said was a lie, or at least it seemed that way, this statement is the truest. We live in a relativistic world where instead of looking to a higher power to provide a moral compass, we seek it in ourselves, or worse. Hence Verbal claiming that he is not a rat becomes a virtue, even though we are led to think that he actually tells all about his criminal activities, becomes a virtue. And that is the problem with this film: there are no heroes. All the main characters are criminals, and the main one walks off without being implicated. Denying the existence of a supernatural good and evil, of God and satan, runs you the risk, at the absolute least, of getting it wrong. There are some dire consequences for this attitude, and such movies seem to celebrate those who feel that way.

Since I did give away the surprise in The Usual Suspects, and in light of everything else I have said about it, you can probably guess that I do not recommend it. Aside from its lack of any real morality, it is kind of boring. While rewatching it recently, I struggled to keep my eyes open at times while Gabriel Byrne wrestled with his American accent and mumbled his lines. And as I said at the beginning, particularly with a movie like this, if you already know Verbal’s real identity as I did, what else is there? I guess you could watch it for Kevin Spacey’s Academy Award winning performance, but then there are the ugly things he was accused of a few years ago. So, pass.

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