Release: Friday, September 15, 1995
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Kevin Spacey; Stephen Baldwin; Chazz Palminteri; Gabriel Byrne; Kevin Pollak; Pete Postlethwaite; Benicio del Toro; Suzy Amis; Giancarlo Esposito
Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Before the X-Men made Bryan Singer a household name in the early 2000s, he had already achieved what the vast majority do not by directing an Oscar winner on his second try, the 1995 neo-noir mystery The Usual Suspects. He had help of course, with his regularly contributing screenwriter taking home one of the two statues for his talky and twisty original screenplay while Kevin Spacey snagged the other for his star-making role as a small-time con man suffering cerebral palsy. The director’s ambition has certainly grown over the years, as have his budgets, but the irony remains that some of his most inspired work resulted before he ever earned his seat at the big kids’ table.
Even if Singer failed to earn plaudits for himself that February night, his craftsmanship here is undeniable. The Usual Suspects is not only stylish without being affectatious, it offers its cast of brand-name actors plenty of room to stretch their legs and play off of one another’s unique energy. The film is not just a master class in obscuring the edges of morality but the cinematic sleight of hand is also really impressive. So often the frame is filled with smoke and mirrors figuring out what is actually going on can be a tall task. Patience (and a willingness to forego immediate comprehension of events) pays dividends. Singer makes you feel as if you’ve accomplished something by the end, something that cannot be said about his more blockbuster-friendly fare, fun as those adventures may have been.
Despite the peripheral blur, the premise remains simple. A major dope deal turns ugly aboard a boat moored in the San Pedro Bay, and a lone survivor, claiming immunity, recounts the details of his involvement and the events leading up to it through extended and potentially unreliable flashbacks. In the present tense, U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) must decide on what level to trust his source. He knows as well as any thug he’s put behind bars that no one wants to be a rat.
The story begins with an explanation of an event that took place six weeks prior, an amusingly farcical police investigation into the disappearance of a truck carrying guns through New York. Although a group of five mangy suspects are brought in for questioning, no culprit is identified. While sequestered in a holding cell, one among them, Stephen Baldwin’s bad-boy hipster Michael McManus, hatches a scheme to screw with the boys in blue as a token of their gratitude for being pointlessly incarcerated. Everyone is on board except Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a former dirty cop trying to turn over a new leaf by going into the restaurant biz.
The others — Benecio del Toro‘s too-cool-for-proper-enunciation Fred Fenster; Kevin Pollak as angry guy Todd Hockney and the recently disgraced Spacey as the aforementioned Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint — have no compunction to leave this cell changed men. A series of profitable but small-time jobs eventually leads the gang to a big payday, when an opportunity arises to clear their names with an arch-criminal by the name of Keyser Söze, an almost mythological figure whom no one ever sees or hears from directly. Because their affinity for theft has struck a little too close to home, one of Söze’s representatives, a mysterious man played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite informs them they can avoid certain death if they disrupt a major coke deal about to go down in the Bay, one that stands to net a competing drug lord $91 million.
Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay, which has curried so much favor with the Writer’s Guild of America over the years it’s now considered among the top 40 greatest screenplays of all time, creates a confluence of themes that include but are certainly not confined to: persuasion versus manipulation; virtue versus vice. Does crime really pay off all your debts? A scale of relativism emerges from the morass: the only thing worse than a career criminal is a career criminal who rats on his colleagues. And in The Usual Suspects, there’s sort of this poetic justice with the way snitches get their stitches.
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Moral of the Story: This is a movie you’ll have to put some effort into but it’s so worth it you’ll very likely end up like me, embarrassed you decided to give up on the first 20 minutes in the first place. After those 20 very confusing and frustrating minutes, the nut eventually cracks.
Running Time: 106 mins.
Something better than another damn quote: The line-up scene was scripted as a serious scene, but after a full day of filming takes where the actors couldn’t keep a straight face, Singer decided to use the funniest takes. Behind the scenes footage reveals the director becoming furious at his actors for not being able to keep their shit together. In an interview, Kevin Pollak states that the hilarity came about when Benicio del Toro “farted, like 12 takes in a row.”
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