The Usual Suspects

Five criminals in a police lineup in The Usual Suspects

“After that, my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.”

A good mystery will leave the viewer clues throughout that point the ultimate revelation, and The Usual Suspects does exactly that. Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) and starring Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, and Chazz Palminteri, this is an extremely intricate film that rewards multiple viewings and in-depth analysis. Some have criticized it as gimmicky, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The performances are excellent, the details that hint at the ending are subtle but very intentional, and the script is brilliant. This is an independent film, and that’s a great thing—Hollywood studios would have dumbed this down to make it much more obvious for average viewers. I’m glad they didn’t—as it is, this film is a masterpiece.

The story opens with Roger “Verbal” Kint being brought in for questioning. He’s the only survivor of a major shootout and explosion on a dock the night before, where a shipful of Hungarians and a handful of criminals died. That handful of criminals is significant because each of them, including Verbal Kint, was brought in for a police lineup just a few weeks prior, where most of them met for the first time. While in confinement, the five criminals plan to execute a crime together, but soon find themselves under the thumb of the elusive crime boss Keyser Soze, who has reason to seek revenge on each of them. Soze seems to be pulling all of the strings from behind the scenes, but everyone wants to answer the question: who is Keyser Soze?

It was Keyser Soze, Agent Kujan. I mean the Devil himself. How do you shoot the Devil in the back? What if you miss?

Yes, there is a twist ending here. It’s good, but admittedly not mind-blowing. Most of the criticisms I see of this film are built on the presupposition that the twist was absolutely mind-blowing and the best in cinema history, only for the viewer to discover that it’s not as big as it was made out to be. The brilliant thing is not the twist, but how seamlessly it’s worked into the film and how many details you can catch on subsequent viewings. Even the actors didn’t really know how this was going to end until they viewed the final movie at the premier. Each of the main actors at one point believed that his character was Keyser Soze (which director Bryan Singer totally orchestrated), and that heightened the sense of mystery during filming. If you think the twist comes out of nowhere, watch it again. It’s a different film the second time around.

Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects
Verbal Kint is the role that made Kevin Spacey famous.

The film itself isn’t a fast-paced action flick. It takes its time, instilling a real sense of danger but focusing on the intricate plot rather than artificially heightening suspense with unnecessary deaths and gunshots. For a crime-mystery, it can actually seem fairly slow. This is fine if you’re expecting it. It’s a film that forces you to pay attention and doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer obvious details, but the slow burn of tension pays off in the end.

The Usual Suspects is an outstanding crime-mystery with a smart script and considerable acting talent behind it. The script is one I spent a lot of time analyzing in a screenwriting class in college and there’s not a piece out of place. If you want a mystery that makes you think and doesn’t talk down to you, this is what you’re looking for.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:46
Director: Bryan Singer
Year: 1995
Genres: crime, indie, mystery
Rating: R

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