Usual Suspects, The (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The "usual suspects" are five men: Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), an ex-cop-turned-crook who's known for his steely demeanor and nerves of iron; Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a psycho entry man; Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), a hardware specialist with an instinct for self-preservation; Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), McManus' partner; and Verbal Klint (Kevin Spacey), a crippled con man. As the movie opens, these five are being bundled into a lineup. A truckload of stolen guns has been hijacked and the cops, led by U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), are primed to get their man. But no one cracks, and as the criminals sit together in jail waiting to be charged or released, they hatch a plan for an elaborate emerald heist.

The story is told in two different time frames. In the present, looking back on events, Klint sits across a desk from Kujan, unfolding the tale as he remembers it. But the con man is an unreliable narrator, and viewers of The Usual Suspects are constantly kept guessing about what "truth" is. In fiction films, we're used to getting an impartial take on "reality"; this picture twists that principle. Not everything presented in The Usual Suspects actually happens, and some things occur differently than shown. The opening sequence, which details the climax of the gang's capers, teases the audience about what may or may not be the ultimate resolution.

Director Bryan Singer, who debuted in 1993 with Public Access, has crafted another in the recent batch of '90s noir thrillers. The Usual Suspects is steeped in atmosphere, and borrows heavily from dozens of sources -- Hitchcock, Scorsese, the Coen brothers, and just about every master of the genre, past or present. Like Quentin Tarantino, Singer's greatest strength is culling moments from other sources and using them in his own mold. There aren't many unique instances in The Usual Suspects, but the entire film is infused with a freshness that results from the manner in which Singer has produced it. The energetic, serpentine plot provides the perfect playground in which a series of deliciously devious characters can have fun.

As the narrative progresses, The Usual Suspects constantly raises the stakes. The audience is only slowly let into the story -- at the beginning, everyone on-screen knows more than we do. Gradually, however, the skein of deceptions and plot devices is untangled by the switches back and forth between present and past. This film requires that a viewer pay careful attention to details. Those who get lost have only themselves to blame -- The Usual Suspects doesn't take any prisoners. A trip to the bathroom or the snack bar will leave you floundering when you return.

The cast is solid, and several of the actors play against type. Kevin Pollak (A Few Good Men), typically known for comic relief/nice guy roles, is cold-blooded here. Kevin Spacey (The Ref), in the best performance of the film, is completely convincing as the gimpy coward who prefers jobs that don't require killing. Gabriel Byrne (Little Women) pulls off his role as the most enigmatic of the quintet, and Stephen Baldwin (Threesome) is the perfect maniac. Benicio Del Toro (Fearless) provides most of the humor, much of which comes as a result of his nearly indecipherable accent. The supporting cast includes Giancarlo Esposito (Do the Right Thing), Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father), Suzy Amis (The Ballad of Little Jo), and Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple).

Singer does an excellent job of blending humor into his noir thriller. There's enough to avoid a sense of ponderousness, but not so much that The Usual Suspects becomes campy. Unlike many motion pictures, this one continually builds to its conclusion. It starts out as the story of a small job, then evolves into a search for the dreaded Keyser Soze -- a legendary criminal of such viciousness that even hardened men like Keaton think twice before crossing him. The Usual Suspects moves towards its inevitable finale, Soze's shadowy presence becomes increasingly more ominous and important, and we get the sense that those who think they hold the cards actually have the weakest hands. In the way it folds its various elements into a single resolution (which the astute viewer will be able to guess beforehand), Singer's film can be accused of toying with the audience. However, at times like this, when the person tugging the strings is adept at his craft, being toyed with can be a worthwhile experience. The Usual Suspects is an accomplished synthesis of noir elements and, as such, is an entertaining entry to the genre.

Usual Suspects, The (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1