Usual Suspects, The (1995)


Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects" was another derivative, Taranatino-like movie wrapped in a seductively slick style.  The film's merits have less to do with displaying a singular voice than with its place in the post-Tarantino Hollywood.

A well-acted, ultra-ironic thriller about the wages of crime, "The Usual Suspects" revolves around a complicated but superficial puzzle that doesn't pay off emotionally. As polished as the filmmaking is, it's second-rate Tarantino, but with the help of good reviews, the film found an audience.

In the L.A. Weekly, the critic Manohla Dargis perceptively singled out the ingredients of the Tarantino-driven formula: "Take a company of actors, among them the cool, the somewhat cool and the thoroughly hopeless, which in the case of this picture means newcomer Benicio, the fast-rising Palminteri and a handful of well-known faces, including Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey. Add to this mixture a self-consciously tangled plot, plenty of loose tough talk ("Oswald was a fag"), loads of casual sadism, and the occasional misplaced reference to some pop-cultural fetish or other. Throw it at the screen and pray that the deities that smiled on Quentin Tarantino take your sorry ass and turn you into the next great hope of God, country, and Hollywood."

Five professional thieves, rounded up by the New York Police in an effort to identify a voice, are placed in a lineup, each taking turns in speaking the same profane words, with each actor emphasizing a different word in the string of obscenities. The narrator, Verbal (Spacey), is a con man with a gimpy leg whose voice variously shifts rhythms. Verbal's friend and mentor, the enigmatic Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), has a tendency to melancholy moroseness. Two hardballs, Hockney (Kevin Pollak), whose quickness has an edge of paranoia, a cocky killer, McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and a handsome Latino, Fenster (Benicio De Toro), round out the clique. After the lineup, the men begin working together, gradually evolving into a tightly-knit gang with coalitions and rivalries.

There's a formal-speaking front man, Mr. Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), who may or may not be Japanese, and a mysterious Keyser Soze, also of uncertain nationality (Turkish or Hungarian). Characters utter his name with trepidation, but it's unclear whether he actually exists. The movie begins five weeks after the lineup, when most of the protagonists have been destroyed while storming a ship allegedly filled with cocaine. Verbal, the only survivor, is interrogated by a Customs agent (Chazz Palminteri) and he goes back in time, before the lineup, and then to the end again. Is he telling the truth Are we seeing what really happened or what Verbal subjectively wishes the agent to believe

Stylishly playful, the film offers a Rashomon-like maze in which it's impossible to determine the truth. An accomplished ensemble of actors elevate the film, adding perversity, particularly Kevin Spacey, who won a supporting actor Oscar for his brilliant turn. Spacey's deliciously ironic manner keeps the story off balance whenever it threatens to become conventional.

The critic David Denby has observed that Singer's style is elegant but empty, using elements pop culture without much wit.  Singer shoots in chiaroscuro, with obsessive close-ups of objects; like Lynch, he zooms in on a lighter, cigarette, coffee cup.  Like Tarantino, scripter Christopher McQuarrie shows a flair for theatricality and knowledge of the crime genre.

Singer shares with Tarantino a movieish playfulness, the tough-guy bravado, the mystique of macho power. However, his work is less spontaneous, more studied than Tarantino's. Like his model, Singer is good at creating tension, and like him (and most indie directors), he has little use for women; there's only one female character, and a minor one at that.


Made on a budget of $.5 million, the film was a moderate commercial success, grossing $22.5 million at the domestic box-office in a thetarical release of 876 screens.

Oscar Alert

Kevin Spacey won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role.

Memorable Lines:

The devil's greatest risk was to convince the world that he doesn't exist.