The Usual Suspects

(Bryan Singer, USA, 1995)


The mystery-thriller The Usual Suspects (1995) is a very curious film. It's a clever, energetic, very well-constructed piece, but it left me rather cold and underwhelmed. I don't think it's one of those monstrously overrated films of the mid '90s, like Carrington (Christopher Hampton, 1995), but I do think it's really only an exercise – even more of an exercise than Soderbergh's The Underneath (1995).


There's actually a lot to like and admire in The Usual Suspects. It starts with the evidence of a calamity – dozens of people dead as the result of some underworld heist gone horribly wrong. One participant is left alive – a talkative, crippled crim named Verbal, played with magnificent understatement by Kevin Spacey, who is equally great in the horror-thriller Seven (1995). Verbal takes his cop interrogator back in time to the coming together of himself and four other dazzlingly brilliant crims – each of them a master of some dark art or other. The visible centre of the plot appears to be the crim played by Gabriel Byrne – who could be more sadistic and treacherous than any of his comrades are giving him credit for. And the invisible centre of the plot is an absolutely enigmatic super-villain named Kaiser Sose – who may be a myth, or a mask, or an almost supernatural Dr Mabuse figure, or maybe even the devil himself.


The film is directed by Bryan Singer, and written by his regular collaborator Christopher McQuarrie. In a very controlled, commanding way, they do everything they can to spice up this puzzle of a plot. Lines of dialogue cascade into another across scene transitions, as in Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). The sudden exaggerated sounds of doors closing or machines operating are like gun blasts that make us and the characters jump in fright. We get, [as in several recent movies], a rich vein of obscene rapport between tough guys, and also a review of some of the classic themes of trust and betrayal paranoia that have always generated stories in the crime genre. Gabriel Byrne has a lover who is too close to him, his achilles heel. And Kaiser Sose, what's his weak spot? "You can't be betrayed", comments one character, "if you have no people".


A particular penny dropped in my mind as I watched The Usual Suspects. I think if we can credit the great Lord Quentin Tarantino with anything, it's that he really has popularised a slightly new, rather jazzy style of narrative construction in slightly edgy, somewhat independent American films. Of course, with its jumping around from the outcome of an event and its subsequent investigation, back to a fragmented, unfolding past, The Usual Suspects owes something to Reservoir Dogs (1992). That's the kind of back-and-forth mystery plot used in The Underneath, too. But The Usual Suspects also joins hands with other current movies that are not so much driven by mystery and enigma: Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), Allison Anders' Mi Vida Loca (1994), and Tom DiCillo's very funny movie about filmmaking, Living in Oblivion (1995).


What you get in all these films – whether they're mysteries or low-life realist films or romantic comedies – is what I'd call a certain prismatic effect. The story doesn't go in one straight line; it's broken down into a kind of prism, whereby the filmmaker turns the key plot events and the central characters over a few times, looking at them from different angles. Sometimes you might get the same event again from a different character's point of view, so that you get a different version, a different retelling of an incident – that's the old 'Rashomon' effect, named after Akira Kurosawa's famous film from 1950. You get that device in Mi Vida Loca; and The Usual Suspects uses it, or a variation on it, in a particularly clever, devious and floating way. Bryan Singer uses that possibility that haunts all stories where there's a teller and a flashback tale: can you trust what you're hearing? In movies, this game has a particular twist, because if you see the images of a story as it's being told – if you see the faces and the gestures and the actions – you automatically or unconsciously tend to believe it's true. It'll be interesting to see what the film version of John Scott's novel What I Have Written does with this kind of game.


Another kind of prismatic effect is pulled off by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. Here, by shuffling the order of events, the film pulls apart linear cause and effect – we see how one plot action prepares or dovetails into another only much later in the film, for instance when we see Travolta and Samuel Jackson stroll into the diner, where we know there's going to be a hold-up pulled by two other punks. And best of all in Pulp Fiction, we get the weird, almost magical and child-like thrill of seeing Travolta as it were come back from the dead and have his great final moment. Living in Oblivion explores another kind of trick, one that approaches what Alain Resnais did in his masterpiece Providence (1977) with John Gielgud. What Resnais did was to have a spectacularly unreliable, fantasising storyteller-narrator who gives us a whole barrage of imaginary portraits of the members of his family – until the finale, when we get to compare these fantasies with the flesh-and-blood real people. This effect is so thrilling, because the film builds up a sort of ghostly composite, a palimpsest of all these characters – their fantasy and real images superimpose in a subtle, teasing way that mimics the actual complexity of people's inner and outer lives.


But Providence goes further than all these American films I've mentioned. There's a commendably jazzy, but also quite superficial effect of narrative play in these recent movies. Tarantino rightly calls it "monkeying around with the structure". This monkeying can certainly be enjoyable and pleasurable. It creates a kind of suspense, a register of surprise, which is new and unusual in mainstream cinema. But there's sometimes no real resonance to it: there's no deeper understanding of any theme or emotion as a pay-off; and no real extension of the formal adventure of filmmaking. Finally, it's a sort of TV effect, an advertising or rock video effect: the fact that cinema is all make-believe and artifice is admitted and flaunted but the radical gesture stops dead right there.


I guess this is why I was not exactly disappointed, but maybe frustrated, with The Usual Suspects. In the final analysis, it's just a glorified whodunit – a mystery puzzle with the pieces more cleverly scattered and concealed than usual. Like a lot of simpler whodunits, the film exhausts itself, empties itself out in the final scene: when all is revealed, there's a frisson, but nothing really left to think about or savour. But this film also gives itself a special and peculiar problem. It has such an obsession with playing storytelling games and twisting the narrative prism here, that it almost ends up being completely nonsensical.


I will avoid giving anything away at this point by cutting to another movie. The mystery-thriller No Way Out (Roger Donaldson, 1987) rests on the hero (Kevin Costner) being framed as a Russian spy, and his desperate drive to establish his innocence as every security agent moves in to kill him. All goes well until the very final moment of the film – the daring postscript, the big final twist. Then we learn, in a high moment of absurdity, that Costner is in fact a Russian spy, and we viewers have been the dupes all along. Fritz Lang pulled that stunt back in 1956 in a crazy B film called Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – but Lang's deep theme was always the duplicity of appearances, and the treachery of the truth.


In No Way Out – and in The Usual Suspects – the final twist just leaves you feeling a bit cheated. What's worse, it also leaves you feeling high and dry.

© Adrian Martin November 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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