“I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.” – Roger “Verbal” Kint
The Usual Suspects is an illusion. A trick played out over 106 minutes that mirrors that of a magician. The prestige at the end leaves the audience astounded. It is a landmark in 90’s cinema: a neo-noir masterpiece of manipulation and deceit. It was a slow burner when originally released, but it quickly gained a cult following. 25 years later, the impact of the acting and how the story develops is still something of a blueprint for modern movie making. For that reason alone, it is worthy of celebration, and a reminder of how pre-social media, word-of-mouth alone marketed films.
The Usual Suspects, directed by the then 30-year old Bryan Singer (X-Men), sets out to define how big-budgets, and big names, are not required for success. Instead, a minimalist movie, which avoids lavish sets or mass pyrotechnics, and definitely no CGI, can still create something spectacular. Success instead stems from a clever script with engaging characters who fumble within claustrophobic settings: a trend which Quentin Tarantino had already started to explore a year previously with Pulp Fiction.
The Usual Suspects begins with a shooting, in the aftermath of an apparent heist in the Los Angeles docklands. A damaged Gabriel Byrne struggles to light a cigarette before a dark figure discharges a gun into his dying body. One of two survivors, Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), a small-time thief and con artist stricken with cerebral palsy, is brought in for questioning. A New York customs agent, Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), flies in to interrogate Kint. This begins the story proper. A story of how five known criminals, including Kint, came together by apparent chance in a police lineup six weeks previous, and now four of them are dead.
The remaining members who make up the gang consist of Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack). Together with Kint they mastermind a heist, one to seek revenge on the NYPD. While in Los Angeles to fence the spoils of their heist, the gang come into contact with a mysterious lawyer, named as Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). Through Kobayashi they learn how everything is a setup, and they are the cast in a much larger story. All of this is relayed to an impatient Kujan in the present tense by Kint, and then the story twists further with the introduction of Keyser Söze.
Through the dying breaths of the second survivor of the night’s carnage, the name of Keyser Söze is spoken to another detective and so the story opens up further. From here a question comes to dominate the storyline: “Who is Keyser Söze?” Kint tells stories to Kujan surrounding the mythical crime lord, and the fear his name instills within the criminal world. Kint recalls a tale of power and strength shown by Söze, and how the group of five were forced to certain death onboard a ship in the Los Angeles harbour. As Kint receives bail, the custom agent has no choice but to let him leave, and then the ingenious penny drops. The audience feels the panic of agent Kujan as each piece on the bulletin board behind him forms the story that’s just been told.
The audience learns everything is a lie, that evil ingenuity wins over good, and the anti-hero loses his limp and disappears into safety with Kobayashi, if that is his name. All the audience actually knows is, Keyser Söze exists, four small time criminals are dead, and customs agent Dave Kujan allowed a legendary kingpin to walk away free.
That feeling in the closing minutes of The Usual Suspects is unadulterated joy. It typifies how a great movie should act, how it should make the audience still revisit it in the hours and the days after. Similar to Christopher Nolan‘s Memento, the ending makes the movie, regardless of how many times you revisit it. That itself is the genius, knowing how the story ends, that so much of the narrative is false, and living for the satisfaction of Kujan’s panicked realisation.
In the 25 years since The Usual Suspects, the movie still holds the same appeal and magnificence as it originally had. However, some of those involved are not as revered. The director himself, Bryan Singer, was fired from last year’s Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. An increasing amount of lawsuits pertaining to sexual assault allegations have also muddied the director’s name. Meanwhile, once the ‘go to’ star and toast of Hollywood following his electrifying performance in 1994’s Seven, allegations of sexual assault were brought against The Usual Suspects leading man Kevin Spacey.
Nevertheless, The Usual Suspects changed the landscape of storytelling. It galvanised further what Tarantino had done with Reservoir Dogs, and even moreso with Pulp Fiction. It demonstrated how a clever script can outdo any big budget, as seen in Costner’s box office bomb Waterworld released earlier that year. With a budget of $175 million, against the more modest six million it took to create this modern classic, script and direction became and remain an integral part of television and cinema. The Usual Suspects also gained accolades, including an Academy Award for best screenplay for Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher), and best supporting actor for Kevin Spacey. In his acceptance speech Spacey kept the mystique of the movie well and truly alive: “Well, whoever Keyser Söze is, I can tell you he’s gonna get gloriously drunk tonight.”