ALONG WITH ‘MEMENTO‘ and ‘LA Confidential’, ‘The Usual Suspects’ is often regarded as one of the 90s best mystery/thrillers. Its ensemble cast—led by the “effortlessly complex” Gabrial Byrne and altogether nearly on par with ‘LA’s—is certainly enough to recommend it, and its original screenplay won an Academy Award. Kevin Spacey also picked up his first for his perfectly natural depiction of Verbal Kint, a cerebral-palsied con man of suspicious depth, and the remaining actors work together with such gregarious ease that we instantly feel at home with their characters (Benicio del Toro aside, whose ‘Asian Cuban Jew’ routine is a little too far afield).
And yet, the film just doesn’t quite work. Stephen Baldwin is quoted as saying that ‘The Usual Suspects’ is not full of clues, but rather lies. And this is true. Though smartly scripted and capably shot from scene to scene, the overall sprawl of the film is unnecessarily complex, featuring too many characters who do too little. Through numerous time-traveling hoops and depositions, the narration feeds us so few tips of substance that we ultimately disengage from the sleuthing and just wait for the answers to unfold. The question, ‘Who is Keyser Söze?’ is repeated regularly in the film’s second half, and we do indeed wonder, but not with the animated interest of a Sam Spade detective story, nor the manic intensity of another 90s thriller featuring Spacey, the grisly ‘Se7en’. ‘The Usual Suspects’ would rather preen in its cleverness, despite having left us in the dark while it pulled most of its tricks. And once that central question is answered, we need know nothing more from the film. Its characters interest us but marginally, those who did are dead, and the villain’s only mystery is his identity—not his motivations, his background, or his nature, all of which were explained in detail in efforts to legitimate the terror that surrounds his name. But what’s to fear in a villain with no secrets, and no vendettas left?
Yes, in a second viewing, the foreshadowing of the film’s one, major twist becomes eminently clear, but more for its suggestively tightening frames than the placement of subtle indicators. And so it remains a fun viewing—a heavier ‘Ocean’s 11’, to some extent—but not one to remember for anything other than that pop culture refrain, ‘Who is Keyser Söze?’ Answer: Kevin Spacey. Next?