Friday, August 27, 2010

Film Friday: The Usual Suspects (1995)

The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir crime thriller with an intensely intelligent plot that twists and turns and wraps a riddle within an enigma as it tricks the audience with their own preconceptions. Add in stellar acting from an incredible cast, a pitch perfect soundtrack, an absolute lack of mistakes or bad choices by a creative director, and easily the most daring script of any film I’ve seen, and you’ve got one of my favorite movies and a movie you must see.

To discuss this film will require MAJOR SPOILERS. Do NOT read this if you haven’t seen the film.

Directed by Bryan Singer, The Usual Suspects ostensibly is a story of a robbery gone wrong, but that’s hardly a fair description. When all is said and done, The Usual Suspects is a mystery, where different characters give you different facts that you need to piece together to decide what really happened.

The story begins with small-time criminal Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) telling U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) what happened the prior night when a group of criminals attacked a boat in San Pedro harbor. Verbal appears to be the only survivor and he has given testimony in exchange for immunity. Kujan is racing against the clock to question him before he is released. According to Verbal, the robbery began several weeks prior in New York, when the police brought in four hardened criminals (and Verbal) for a lineup after a truck was highjacked. This group consists of Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), and Fenster (Benicio del Toro). They decide to use the opportunity of the lineup to work together on a heist in NYC. After they pull off the heist, they fly to Los Angeles to meet the fence who will sell what they’ve stolen. In L.A., they are forced to perform a robbery for a criminal legend named Keyser Sӧze, who may or may not exist. Sӧze, supposedly, is a ruthless, omnipresent Turkish criminal mastermind who uses other criminals to commit his crimes. The robbery involves forty million dollars in dope and an equal amount of cash on a ship in San Pedro harbor.

This sounds straight forward, but director Singer does something daring. As Verbal tells this story, Agent Kujan keeps interrupting him with facts that Verbal either does not know or has lied about. At the same time, FBI Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) provides us with additional facts. For example, there were no drugs and it appears the true purpose of the raid was to kill a man who could identify Sӧze. When Kujan finally confronts Verbal with what Kujan believes happened, Verbal breaks down and agrees with everything Kujan says. He is then released. But as he leaves, we learn one more crucial fact -- Verbal is identified as Keyser Sӧze by a witness pulled out of the harbor. In this way, Singer presents four different versions of what happened. Verbal tells one story. Within Verbal’s story, we are given a second version by Dean Keaton, the man Kujan thinks is the leader of the group and who Kujan ultimately believes to be Keyser Sӧze. Agent Kujan and Baer give us a third version based on the facts Kujan collected from before the robbery and Baer collects from the harbor. Finally, we are given what appears to be the truth when we learn at the end that Verbal is Sӧze.

This alone makes this a brave script. The use of the four different version plot device (which dates back to Kurosawa’s Rashomon) is very difficult to pull off and extremely confusing when done poorly. Moreover, unlike prior films that used this and which always told the audience what really happened in the final version, Singer only provides some verified facts and leaves it to the audience to piece the truth together. That is a daring choice because it’s by no means certain the audience will be able to put this back together, and a confused audience is an unhappy audience.

What’s more, Singer doubles down on the difficulty by mixing up the movie’s chronology: it starts the night before, moves forward to today, backs up several weeks, swings back to the present, moves back to a different point in the past, and so on, as different parts of the story are told. There are many dangers to this approach. For example, the audience may not be able to put the story back in the right order. Moreover, because the audience knows the ending right at the beginning, there is a real danger the attack on the harbor will lose its drama because the audience knows how it will end. But Singer overcomes these issues brilliantly both by maintaining a strong pace and by giving you characters who seem so determined, so in control, and so competent that you don’t believe they can fail, even though you’ve already been shown that they do.

But even more than these issues, Singer takes a tremendous chance in that ultimately we know nothing of what really happened. Indeed, when we analyze the facts presented and we consider what we actually know to be true, rather than what we think we know, we quickly discover that we can’t believe anything we’ve been told throughout the movie. The only facts we know for certain are (1) Verbal is Keyser Sӧze, (2) Verbal and a group of men attacked the harbor, (3) the four criminals (Keaton, McManus, Fenster and Hockney) are dead, and (4) Keaton’s girlfriend is dead. That’s it. Nothing else in Verbal’s story can be verified and most of it can even be dismissed out of hand. Thus, Singer essentially shatters the entire film. The danger with this approach is that it risks alienating the audience. Audiences don’t like feeling like they’ve been misled or like their time has been wasted, and nothing feels more like having your time wasted than being told that you can’t believe anything you’ve seen over the last two hours. But Singer does something very clever here. Despite telling the audience quite plainly that nothing they’ve just seen can be believed, he also gives them one moment of truth -- when Verbal’s true identity is revealed. This allows the audience to feel that they really do know what happened; indeed, strangely, we take this fact and instantly reassemble the story into a new narrative that makes sense to us. . . even though none of the pieces we use to reassemble that narrative are true.

And that brings us to the twist. Using a twist in a movie is very risky because a poorly done twist, i.e. one that isn’t organic to the story, feels cheap and tacked on and leaves the audience feeling cheated. But making a twist feel organic and still keeping the audience from seeing the twist too early is very difficult and often requires careful slight of hand.

Yet, despite this difficulty, Singer hides nothing. Indeed, from frame one, we are told this will be a mystery and the question will be “who killed Dean Keaton.” Thus, the audience is put on alert from the beginning. Then, throughout the film, Singer constantly gives clues as to Keyser Sӧze’s true identity. For example, Sӧze and Verbal have the same lighter and Verbal clearly is playing with Kujan -- something that should be out of character if he is who he says he is. Yet, the audience overlooks these clues because Verbal doesn't fit our preconceived notions about what a criminal mastermind must look like and act like. In other words, we simply find it impossible to believe that the meek cripple is the Satanesque villain we are looking for (Kujan, by the way, makes the same mistake and indeed tells Verbal repeatedly that a "stupid," "cripple" like Verbal could only be a pawn). Instead, we find it much easier to believe that the menacing, brooding Dean Keaton is Sӧze, just as Kujan urges us to believe.

Which one is the master criminal?

Singer takes a huge risk here that the audience will see the twist coming and link Verbal to Sӧze right away -- which would ruin the movie. He even adds to that risk by warning us that we need to look beyond our perceived notions. He does this when Verbal warns Kujan: “for the cops, there’s no mystery to the street. If you think some guy did it, then you’re going to find you’re right.” And that is exactly what we do in the film: we size up the suspects and we pick the guy it usually would be -- Dean Keaton. Singer deserves tremendous credit for correctly calculating that we would ignore the clues.

That’s why this is easily one of the smartest films you will ever see. It is so tightly written, so daring in its choices, so mistake free, so perfectly acted, and so expertly assembled that a movie that could have been a horrific jumble in other hands turns into an intelligent puzzle in Singer’s hands. And Singer takes real risks and overcomes them brilliantly by skillfully deceiving us with our own preconceptions. The American Film Institute ranked this the tenth best mystery film of all time, I would rank it higher.

Not bad for a six million dollar film no one wanted to fund.

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Joel Farnham said...

This is a movie I have watched three times and get something new out of it each time.

Even after knowing all of it, I still wonder if there really was a Keyser Soze or is it a construct to always throw the cops off the scent.

Great movie!!!

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I saw a fascinating interview with the director and the writer, and they actually had a difference of opinion about how much in the movie is true. One said that absolutely nothing you hear is true except what Kujan tells you -- which is that everyone else is dead. The other thought Spacey told it fairly close to the truth with only minor changes.

I lean toward the idea that nothing was true because we see where Spacey is making up the names and places as he goes along.

I'm not sure there is a Keyser Soze either. We know that Verbal is not what he pretends to be, but that doesn't make him Keyser Soze.

I think it's just a fascinating film. And like you, I see new things in it every time I watch it. And I was totally blown away the first time I saw it because I completely fell for the Dean Keaton is really THE bad guy story.

Tam said...

I remember the first time I saw it when Verbal tells Stephen Baldwin they're speaking hungarian on the pier I thought to myself "holy cow, it's him!" but I didn't say it out loud because I didn't quite believe it. This movie is brilliant, one of my all time favorites. I was also totally blown away the first time, and I LOVE to meet people who haven't seen it so I can watch them watch it for the first time.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, I missed that line the first time through, but I caught it the second time and I thought -- how did I miss that?

And that's exactly one of the things that I think makes this movie so brilliant. There are literally dozens of clues and they aren't hidden at all. But it's so hard to put them together because it's just so hard to believe that Verbal could be anything more than a small time criminal and you get so wrapped up in the story and trying to confirm to yourself that it's Dean Keaton. If it was easier to believe Spacey could be THE bag guy, then you could probably have figured it out in the open scene. So to me, it was an incredibly daring script to even try that.

I've shown the movie to a several people and most have been really blown away by it. One or two didn't like it for various reasons, but that's to be expected.

I am often amazed to find that so many people have not seen it (I saw it with someone in it's first week in the theaters and we were the only ones in the theater). I guess that's what happens when there is almost no marketing budget. In any event, this is one that should not be missed.

Tennessee Jed said...

I think most people would agree this is a great movie; well written, directed, and acted. It does require multiple viewings to even attempt to tryly understand . . . and even then, as you point out, there is plenty of opportunity for different interpretations. I have viewed it numerous times and have intended to do a scene by scene note taking exercise.

Interestingly, one could argue that a film that requires that many viewings is, in some small way, flawed itself, although I would not do so. I actually enjoy films where not every detail, fact or interpretation is tied down hard and fast. In that respect, this film kind of reminds me of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. These are the two films in recent times that, in my view, could launch more legitimate discussion about the meaning than any others I can recall. In my book, that is what makes a film great.

Game Master Rob Adams said...

I love it! This movie speaks volumes for movies that need a good surprise ending.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think it's interesting that you've thought about doing a scene by scene examination of this film. In fact, I think that more than anything tells us it's a great film, when people find it so fascinating that they want to dig deeper into the movie and see what makes it tick.

I'm also thrilled that Commentara-tarians seem to really like this film!

And I agree with you, that this is what makes a great film -- being the kind of film that keeps you thinking after you've left the theater and which makes you want to watch it again just to wrap your head around it and see what you might have missed. Every great film I can think of has those elements, where people find themselves analyzing the film afterwards -- either, "what did I miss" or "what if" type thoughts.

I don't know that I would call such a film "flawed." I think the unanswered questions tend to be a sign of writers-maturity rather than a flaw.

In one regard, I will agree that these kinds of films can be considered flawed, in that they are often not easily accessible for people who are just looking for simple entertainment (though The Usual Suspects is still a pretty good film even for that crowd). But I'm all films need to work for all audiences, and I'm thrilled that they occasional make movies for people who like to think about what they've seen rather than just have everything handed to them.

AndrewPrice said...

ACG, I agree entirely. This is how twists/surprises should be done -- the clues should be there the whole time, it should be an integral part of the story, and the method for revealing it should be extraordinary. This one hits on all those cylinders.

Unknown said...

As Tennessee said, perhaps a movie that has to be watched more than once is somewhat flawed to start with. I agree, but at the same time it's like the "Persian flaw." The movie might be too pretty or too clever without the flaw. Like several others, I've watched it three times, got something different out of it each time, and still am not entirely sure I've drawn a final conclusion. The greatness of the movie is that if the need to re-watch it is a flaw, I don't care.

Ed said...

This is one of my favorite films! I love the cast, love the direction, and love the story. I had no idea this had such a small budget?

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think it would be too slick if they laid it all out. In some movies, it makes sense to lay it all out at the end to show the audience what they missed (like The Sixth Sense. But other movies are best left with ambiguity because it gives you something to think about. I think this is one of those.

I really am glad to hear that everyone here has seen the movie, seen it multiple times, and really enjoyed it! Great minds, right?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Originally, the studios thought the script was too complex, so they didn't want to fund it. The director eventually got funding from a European studio, but they bailed out, that's when Polygram picked it up. Interestingly, because of the budget, they couldn't pay the actors anywhere near what they normally earn for doing a movie. But these guys all took pay cuts because they wanted to do this script and because they wanted to work with each other.

I'm glad they did!

I'm also glad they didn't have more money because they were talking about casting all kinds of bigger names who could never have pulled this off.

JB1000 said...

The guy in the hospital described Spacey's character. The sketch was faxed to the police just after Spacey walked out. Did the guy in the hospital describe Soze or just the person who shot him? I assumed it was Soze and that made Spacey Soze. I might have to watch it again.

Tennessee Jed said...

Lots of great comments. Another testament to the film's quality perhaps? I did want to reiterate though, that I do not particularly subscribe to the notion that the film is flawed. Rather, if one drew that side of a formal debate, they could probably craft a legitimate, if not winning argument.

AndrewPrice said...

JB, That's one of the questions actually. I'm taking it that he described Spacey as Soze because he was so worked up about Soze. But he could have just been describing the guy who shot him. You just never know.

And that's a very risky thing for a movie to do because many people will feel: "that's stupid, we don't know anything" and be very unhappy with the film. But in this case, they've given us enough "certainty" that few people will even notice that they don't really know much of anything.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I didn't take your comment to mean the film was flawed. :-)

Indeed, I recognized your point to be that it's an argument you could make in that the story appears to have holes. And the film is certainly dancing on the edge here, because if it doesn't give enough information then it will be considered flawed. But I think like all great films, this one walks that fine line perfectly.

I also think you're right about the comments, particularly how everyone seems to recall so much of the film and mentions that they've seen it multiple times and are interested in seeing it again. That doesn't happen with lesser films.

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