When you see a movie for the first time, you’re discovering everything, and depending of various factors, you come out having enjoyed it or not. With time, you might come to watch the film again, and again, what with video, DVD, cable and so on, and one of two things can happen: either you’ll like it more with each viewing, discovering new subtleties, with familiarity adding to the entertainment value, or you might enjoy it less, finding that it lost some of its appeal. “The Usual Suspects”, I fear, falls in the latter category. When I first saw the movie in 96, post Oscars, I was enthralled. A big Reservoir Dogs fan, I really got into this somehow similar crime picture in which also revolve around a group of low-life thugs getting together to do a job. I liked the tone, I liked the performances, and then when the final twist came, I was simply amazed, so much that I had to rewind the movie and watch it again. It took nearly five years for me to get around to rent it again, but the film never quite escaped my mind. But having now just watched it again, I realize that it’s nearly only that last scene that makes the film so mind blowing. Not that the rest of the film isn’t good; “The Usual Suspects” remains an intriguing modern film noir all along, but nothing that comes before its brilliant finale is quite as memorable
Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) is a U.S. Customs agent who has one hell of a case in his hands. A huge boat exploded in the Long Beach Harbor, killing more than 20 people, apparently all because of a 91 million dollar transaction of cocaine that wasn’t even on board. Why is that? Who did it? Kujan has a lot to find out and he’s determined to succeed by questioning relentlessly his one eyewitness, a crippled con man who goes by the name of Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). And so begins a long interrogation in which Kujan tries to squeeze the truth out of Verbal, who reluctantly tells him how himself and four other mostly unrelated criminals were put on the same line up after a truck hijack and went on to team up to do jobs. We hear about a couple of hits involving corrupt cops and drug smugglers, and Verbal finally gets to the whole boat deal, but that only makes things even more hard to understand for Kujan when he learns about the possible involvement of Keyser Soze, a mysterious Turkish crime lord whom everyone speaks of as if he was the Devil himself…
The story is told in flashbacks, as Verbal recollects for Kujan. Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie does a great job at confusing us, mixing various information and offering different takes on the same events. You never quite know who’s being upfront or not, or who has a hidden agenda. The characters aren’t much more than “types”, but the heterogeneous cast gives them flavour. There’s Gabriel Byrne as Dean Keaton, an ex-cop turned gangster who wants to clean his act for the love of a woman but can’t get the cops off his back. Kevin Pollack is amusing enough as Hockney, a specialist in explosives, as is the usually mediocre Stephen Baldwin as sniper McManus. Then there’s fashionable Latino hustler Fenster, played by an almost unrecognisably thin Benicio Del Toro. But the most interesting acting is found between Palminteri and especially Spacey, who interestingly alternate between antagonism and cooperation through the interrogation that unfold through the film.
“The Usual Suspects” marked the arrival of filmmaker Bryan Singer, whom I reckon had worked on other little seem films before but caught everyone’s attention with this triumph of audience manipulation. Much credit has to go to writer McQuarrie, obviously, but it wouldn’t be quite the same without Singer’s careful shot composition; some of it probably came out of monetary restraints (for instance, they didn’t have the budget to really blow up a big boat), but often original compromises are more interesting than just showing off. Mention must also be made of the great work done by John Ottman, who acted as both composer of the music score and editor, and therefore is greatly responsible for the effectiveness of the film and its perfectly tuned final sequence. “The Usual Suspects” loses some of its impact with subsequent viewings, but it remains a superior picture with much to enjoy beyond its unforgettable ending.