#25: The Usual Suspects (1995)

A ship explodes in the Port of Los Angeles, littering the harbour with charred corpses. The Police are investigating the incident, which appears to be a dope deal gone horribly wrong, and are only able to charge the one remaining unharmed criminal with weapons possession. That criminal is con-man and cripple Roger Kint (Kevin Spacey), or Verbal as his colleagues call him, and the film covers the two hours in which Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) has left to question him before he posts bail. With the story told through flashbacks and Kint’s narration, we learn how five men, all from the criminal underworld, meet each other in a police line-up and decide to work a job together. But how does this chance meeting lead to dozens of deaths on that ship?
Spacey plays the role of the vulnerable yet ruthless Kint expertly, narrating all the events chronologically after Agent Kujan threatens him. The story itself is simple enough on the whole, but we begin to question how truthful Kint is being about his own involvement - is he aggrandising himself? He and his fellow thieves, big shot Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), unhinged Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), explosives expert Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack), and oddly-accented Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro) all find themselves under the thumb of the mysterious mega-villain Keyser Söze. They only ever meet his (also bizarrely-accented) lawyer, Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), adding to the mystery of this terrifying urban legend. Who is Söze, and how can they appease his dreadful rage?
Director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie worked together to get this project off the ground, getting into discussions with Spacey before the concept was even really together. The Usual Suspects is a really well-plotted (thriller? neo-noir? I can’t decide) film that somehow draws you in despite the total lack of sympathetic or likeable characters. You want to know what happened to these men, although I don’t think on the whole we particularly care for them. The pacing is perfectly balanced, as we neither career into the climactic ending, nor is there ever any sense of inertia. We trust McQuarrie to make the reveals when necessary, and for Singer to make it all work believably, the action on screen gripping us mercilessly. I couldn’t find a single thing to nitpick or grumble over, with all sense of silliness or sentimentality dismissed. Although The Usual Suspects is very serious, it remains excruciatingly exciting at times, filled to the hilt with action, suspense and violence (although nothing particularly awful).

I can’t quite get rid of the unenthusiastic tone of this post (I’m tired) but this is an incredible film that you have to have to have to watch. Although the plot might be a little hard to follow at first watch, as it’s hard to grasp all the different motives that circle one another, it’s a genius story and a work that earns its place in the top third of this list. Also, it’s the only film I can think of that actually benefits from a narrator structure, aside from films like Rashomon which are entirely about storytelling, where it’s an obvious necessity. Usually the device breaks the flow and jars the film, leaving me desperate just to see the story itself played out on screen. Sunset Boulevard is saved this fate by the sheer wit of the narration, but it’s hard to imagine The Usual Suspects working at all without Kint’s storytelling. For that reason alone, perhaps, The Usual Suspects is a particular joy to watch, as exciting as it is enjoyable, and well worth returning to again and again.