The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)


Here ’tis, fangirls and fanboys — the gotcha-est of gotcha movies, the puzzliest of puzzle movies. Nonstop talk, chatter, explication, a mystery to solve, a big twist ending, a big central secret — and a central question to which everyone wants the answer. The kind of movie that drips with noir cool and distant intellectualism. The kind of movie that blows your mind when you see it at a formative age. The kind of movie that was written around a catchy title and a poster. Kevin Spacey and Gabriel Byrne are here, and Benicio del Toro and Chazz Palminteri — everybody. The plot takes pages to summarize, like the plot of The Big Sleep or whatnot. The premise, in contrast, is delectably simple: a group of crooks meet in a police lineup, and find their subsequent pathways driven by what seems a mysterious outside force blackmailing them and leading to their demise. I can’t feel my legs.

There’s a long-running argument with a movie like this, driven on the central shock moment of a wild finale, that it only actually works the first time you see it. Sometimes it’s true. In this case, it’s hard to understand how one can really enjoy the film without being aware of its brilliant machinations. It just seems like a big jumble of information and facts, and constant fridge-buzz chatter. In fact, The Usual Suspects really only works on repeated viewings. You’re left one time through with the vague impression that a fairly traditional Rashomon idea applied to crime drama is here affixed to ’90s steely-cool Reservoir Dogs mode, except with things actually happening onscreen. There’s a lot more than that going on here.

As someone who saw this a lot as a teenager, I can well remember it being a frustration at first, embodying a lot of things I didn’t yet know that I hate: excessive exposition, talkiness, constant back-and-forth flashback mode. Yet the performances are so intriguing and fun, Spacey’s especially, and the final revelation is cheeky enough that something brought me back and for a time it was a sort of fascinating. When you don’t know the Trick of Christopher McQuarrie’s convoluted screenplay, it’s just so confusing. Only in retrospect and on revisit do you realize the ingenuity of the thing, that its haphazard narrative feels like someone is making it up as they go along because that’s precisely what’s happening.

The entire movie is thus an act of being stalled, and in some sense a dream, with weird and film-informed dream logic. The central search for Keyser Soze, and cops who think they’re hot on the trail of this bit of intrigue, causes Spacey’s nervous Kint to frame his narrative around a bold, cloudy mythology. As in North by Northwest, the entire story becomes the MacGuffin — one event only follows another through a lot of painstaking backward-bending, and unlike Northwest, this film deliberately falls back on explanatory speaking and voiceover. Perhaps not the most cinematic choice, and yet this remains a wonderful time at the movies because its secret premise is so audacious. The characters are memorable but they also seem made up, contrived and nearly purposeless; and again, for a reason, the panicked (or cool, who’s to say) improvisation of someone who’s been in the underworld a long time and has probably also seen a lot of movies.

This lengthy run of flashbacks is, of course, full of lies. That’s been a controversial conceit all the way back to another Hitchcock film, Stage Fright, which infamously — and curiously, in the same year as Rashomon — illustrated a lie as if it were a complete and correct vision of a past event, seen even by Hitchcock as a critical error in tone and execution. All such indulgences in The Usual Suspects are forgiven because the movie takes the notion to its best possible conclusion, a big and bold act of carrying us (some would say dragging us) along through a red herring for 106 minutes. Revisiting the film — which has become both overrated by the internet movie community and large and underrated by seasoned cinephiles — as an adult, I only wish that it went farther with making this the illustration of wild, just-this-side-of-unbelievable ravings of a criminal trying to talk his way out of capture. But perhaps I’m wanting the Michel Gondry Usual Suspects, not something that could really exist and remain as trustworthily grimy and gritty as the film presently is.

Botched drug deals, corrupt lawyers, shady relations among criminals, big drug shipments and blackmail and protections of secret identity — it’s not just noir, it’s comic book noir. While this is somewhat justified given the actual thrust of the story (again, albeit only in retrospect) and only adds to its delightful appeal as a slightly lunatic midnight movie, it does forecast the places where director Bryan Singer would subsequently take this talents. For some of us, this is lamentable — beyond everything else, Singer shows a great flair for pure style that’s both restlessly fun and far less empty than someone like Tarantino’s. The Usual Suspects is a wonderful movie but it seems like just the first step for Singer; unfortunately, he would afterward spin around in a wholly different direction — not unlike post-Memento Christopher Nolan. (There’s even less to say about McQuarrie’s career after this.) Instead of an introduction to burgeoning new talents, this now plays as just a time capsule of what felt right in 1995 — and, oddly enough, still seems like the best kind of cool-headed, mindbending tease now.

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