The best turns are those in which the execution takes precedence over the reveal.
This piece discusses one of the greatest twist endings in the history of movies and the reason it still feels exceptional until now. The Usual Suspects turns 27 this year, and even though it way surpasses the statute of restrictions on spoiling a finale, I would recommend those who haven’t watched it to stop scrolling down.
[Warning: Spoiler Ahead]
I acknowledge that the spoiler alert is a little strange as filmmaker Bryan Singer and scriptwriter indicated in their commentary track, that the truth is told to the audience as they spend nearly 120 minutes attempting to persuade that you watched something dissimilar, and afterwards completely reframe the whole plot in under 5 minutes. Aside from providing an untrustworthy storyteller, this movie also illustrates the risks associated with expecting to be fed a particular narrative.
The Final Moment
Prior to our start, here is the conclusion in case you forgot how good it delivers.
Singer tries to set up an impartial reality from the launching viewpoint, but then tries to convince the audience that this was Verbal’s viewpoint. Note that in this article, the name Verbal refers to the character as though he truly existed, rather than just a cover for Keyser Söze. Since the camera may roam wherever and the audience have a close-up of Keaton’s face while he’s on the boat, the direction ought to be informing them what actually took place from a cinematic perspective.
It’s unclear in the following sequence whether the thing the audience has just observed is from the deposition of Verbal Kint or whether it started the moment he was presented. Verbal is delivering his deposition on his way to the prosecuting attorney. It’s unclear how much of the introduction is from Verbal’s point of view, even when Kujan reads from the announcement, “You saw a man in a suit with a slim build… you told the D.A. you didn’t know who it was.”
The beginning therefore places us in between two half-truths: 1) Verbal’s verbal account of what truly occurred while omitting his name, and 2) Kujan’s belief that the opening scenario is a fabrication since Keaton is Keyser Söze. It’s unclear how much of Verbal’s story is accurate, particularly given that Verbal portrays Keaton as a likable character and Kujan labels him a “coldhearted bastard.”
Singer digs himself a hole and later feigns surprise by saying Keaton was a legendary criminal boss. The astute detective discovered it! It sort of represents an end. It isn’t something that will make your hair stand on end, but something that, given the things we’ve observed and the things we’ve been told, is a reasonable conclusion, even though the movie’s introduction tells us it’s unfeasible… unless Verbal is telling lies.
The Influence Of The Untrustworthy Narrators
Since they are a lie covered under another lie, I have a real taste for unreliable storytellers in movies. Although there are hundreds of decisions that come into each shot and each edit so as to narrate a plot, cinema creates a sense of objectivity. It is manipulation at its best, and when a manipulator enters it, particularly one as accomplished as Kevin Spacey when he is at the top of his game, a movie can throw you for a loop.
While I enjoy seeing Spacey bluff and bully his way all the way in House of Cards, his delivery in The Usual Suspects is much more compelling since it demonstrates a distinct type of power, and it still works if you realize Verbal is a fictional character whose real identity is Keyser Söze. What once appeared to be ennui now emerges as observation, yet never in an overt or evident way; the performer never confuses or misleads the viewers. Later it is revealed that what was initially Verbal taking a harmless coffee drink was actually him glancing at Kujan’s mug and coming up with the alias “Kobayashi.”
There, Spacey’s talent is to demonstrate power via frailty. Not only does he appear as a “weak, ignorant cripple,” but a broken-hearted person as well. In order for Kujan to feel happy upon discovering that the scheme to rob New York’s Finest Taxi Service was Keaton’s, instead of Verbal’s, he needs to show off the power of everyone else while simultaneously leaving detectable falsehoods within his greater lie. Spacey has to be cautious not to overplay his hand but to avoid being a wimpy caricature. Verbal crying about Keaton, “He was my friend,” is distressing even at the moment the audience realizes it’s all Verbal’s acting.
The Greatest Trick
The Usual Suspects never fails to be engrossing, and the ending is always successful, even when it is acknowledged that Verbal and probably his whole tale is just fiction. This, I believe, is partially because John Ottman, the editor and composer, is also the same individual.
This is unusual, but Ottman treats the movie’s climax similar to a musical crescendo and transforms everything—from the speech to the images—into notes of a symphony that is ascending to its culmination. All the things we’ve listened to before are now being recycled, and this happens when those with good memory notice that the gold watch Verbal collects is exactly the watch Arturo Marquez wore when he was slain and the gold lighter was hinted at in the first scene. In spite of the fact that, similar to Kujan, we should have received a cue that something was off, Singer continues to portray Verbal as innocent.
We now know the proficiency of “the devil” and yet we seem to pay no attention to it, the moment Kujan learns that Keyser was utilizing the bulletin board in the interrogation room as material for a complex story aimed to feed into Kujan’s anti-Keaton attitude. We are neither upset nor enraged with Keyser. Our sympathies are more likely to be with a psychopath who is an excellent narrator. That kind of deception is practiced by every skilled magician, and it’s the kind of deception we would like to watch in movies.
The Usual Suspects comprehends the capacity of narrators and narration, and that the way a story is told is probably more essential than the story’s content. Despite not being a film about films and being fulfilled to be a gripping criminal yarn, The Usual Suspects still has an important influence today. The greatest trick for The Usual Suspects isn’t persuading everyone that the devil doesn’t exist. It consistently subjugates you to the devil’s will and demonstrates his might.