Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Usual Suspects

What Happens

Please note that this post contains major spoilers, if you haven't seen the movie and plan to, be advised that watching it spoiler free the first time is highly recommended.

The movie opens showing us "San Pedro, California - Last Night" We see Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) sitting on the deck of a ship lighting a cigarette with a book of matches. He drops the matches into a trail of leaking fuel which catches fire in a line away from him. We see another figure above him walk down to Keaton's level. Keaton is in bad shape, shaking his head in exhaustion. The other man, now standing in front of him, lights a Zippo lighter and asks "How you doing Keaton?" Keaton answers "I can't feel my legs...Keyser." Keyser asks "Ready?" and pulls out a pistol. Keaton sees this and asks "What time is it?" "12:30" Keyser answers, Keaton closes his eyes and Keyser shoots him in the head. Keyser drops his own cigarette which lights it's own fuel trail leading to a big fire.

We then find Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) giving a statement to the D.A. He explains that "it all started back in New York, six weeks ago. A truck loaded with stripped gun parts got jacked outside of Queens.The driver didn't see anybody, but someone fucked up. He heard a voice. Sometimes that's all you need."

We flash back to "New York City - 6 weeks ago"  The police are making rounds apprehending people. The first person they grab is McManus (Stephen Baldwin) who's asleep in bed. Next is Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack) who is working in a garage. Third is Fred Fenster (Benecio Del Toro) Fourth is Keaton, who is explaining an idea for a restaurant to prospective investors. Keaton is picked up by Special Agent, David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) who seems to be amused at breaking up Keaton's meeting. Keaton leaves his girlfriend Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis) to handle the meeting. We don't see Kint being apprehend, but we see him walking with a pronounced limp on the way with other four, to perform a line up for the police. Kint mentions that he didn't belong with them as they were all serious hijackers, but he says "it was fun, I got to act like I was notorious"
The five men take turns reading a line. Kint explains "the whole thing was a set up." and remarks "You don't put guys like that in a room together. Who knows what can happen?"

The five are all interrogated all night about the stolen truck and then sent to a holding cell to await release.
Kint establishes the men's characters as we see the police interrogate each man. Kint says that McManus and Fenster always work together. McManus is a "top notch entry man" and "crazy" while Fenster is "a smart man" Todd Hockney is good with explosives and as Kint says "without a doubt, the one guy who didn't give a fuck about anybody." Keaton is "the real prize for them, for obvious reasons." We see all the men sharing a holding cell. In the cell, Fenster complains about being "treated like a criminal." Hockney reminds him "You are a criminal." We see Keaton sit apart from the others, getting irritated at Fenster talking. McManus remarks that he heard Keaton was dead. Keaton tells him he's right. They establish that Keaton has retired. Hockney tells them what he's heard that Keaton is dating Edie Finneran, a high powered criminal lawyer. McManus asks if Keaton is a "lawyer's wife." Keaton asks Fenster to tell McManus to "keep quiet." Keaton tells the others that the whole thing is wrong, as the police have no evidence, and there's no way the five of them should normally be held in the same room. Keaton assumes that the police put them together to satisfy the feds who were responsible for investigating the missing truck.

Hockney asks "Who's the gimp" meaning Verbal. Keaton vouches for him, saying they've met before in prison, when Verbal was in for fraud.Mcmanus suggests that they make the best of the situation and proposes a job they can do together. Everyone is interested except Keaton, who's firm about his retired status.

We flash to "San Pedro, California - present day" where we see charred corpses being covered up on a dock. Overlooking the situation is, Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) with the FBI. The clean up crew tells him they have 15 dead with more in the water, and that there were two survivors, one in a coma, and the other "a cripple from New York" As Baer leaves the scene, we see the boat still smoking. We see that Agent Kujan has flown to California and is bugging one of the Sgt. Rabin (Dan Hedaya)  to talk to Verbal Kint. The cop explains that Verbal gave a statement and got a deal from the DA which includes immunity to charges, and that the situation has turned political, adding that Verbal is "protected on high from the prince of darkness" Verbal is expected to post bail in two hours and Kujan insists on speaking to him. Sgt. Rabin repeatedly refuses, finally telling Kujan that Kint won't go into an interrogation room for fear of being recorded. Kujan suggests an informal chat in Rabin's office, stating that his main interest is in making sure that Keaton's really dead. Rabin agrees although he insists that 'they're all dead."

Meanwhile Agent Jack Baer is checking out the boat survivor in the hospital. he learns that the man only speaks Hungarian and that most of the people on the boat were Hungarian. Baer orders security put on the man's room. The man's name is Arkosh Kovash, and he's frantically mumbling in Hungarian, semi conscious.
Baer calls for a Hungarian translator and Kovash gets his attention when he screams about "Keyser Soze" which prompts Baer to ask that his office locate Agent Kujan.

Verbal is now in Rabin's office, taking in the details while he waits for Kujan to meet him there. He notices the details of a cigarette box and Rabin's chaotic bulletin board behind his desk, completely covered with newspaper clippings. Agent Kujan comes in and Verbal starts chatting telling a story about being in a barbershop quartet in Skokie Illinois. Kujan cuts off his banter telling Verbal "We're trying to help you.." Kujan starts talking about Keaton, telling Verbal "Dean Keaton was a piece of shit." Kint tells him that he gave his whole story to the DA. Kujan threatens Kint telling him that if he doesn't cooperate, he'll tell some dangerous people that he talked about them. Kujan brags about himself, telling Verbal, "I'm smarter than you and I'm gonna find out what I wanna know." Verbal says "I'm not a rat." Kujan asks Verbal to tell him what happened after the line up.

We see Keaton and Edie leaving the New York Police Department together. Edie complains that the desk sergeant kept trying to keep from releasing Keaton even though he wasn't charged. She advises him to get pictures of his face where the cops hit him. She tells him that the people at the meeting "need more time." which discourages him. He says "I'm finished." and then "They ruined me in there tonight." Edie tries to get his attention by saying "I love you." but Keaton is looking across the street at the others from the line up. Kint explains in voiceover that McMaus proposed a job that "to do it wrong meant killing, to do it right, took five men. Five men meant Keaton. Keaton took convincing." Verbal pleads with Keaton to do the job as they won't use Verbal without Keaton being there. The job involves "New York's finest taxi service." a taxi service run by crooked cops, which is essentially renting out a police car for an exorbitant fee. The service is transporting a guy smuggling emeralds.and McManus wants to hold them up and he can fence the emeralds in California.

Keaton agrees and they hold up the police car using four vans to block them in at gunpoint before taking the emeralds and lighting the car on fire. Keaton had called the press earlier making sure they showed up before other police. The resulting situation shakes up the whole NY police department leading to 50 cops being fired. The five of them meet up later and agree that they'll all go with McManus to California to meet his fence, a guy named Redfoot. Keaton insists on seeing Edie before he leaves for California. He sees her at work and leaves without saying a word to her.

Rabin makes fun of Verbal's sentimental story causing Kujan to ask Rabin to leave. Kujan challenges the idea that Keaton really retired, telling Verbal that in every case they brought against Keaton, the witnesses always died, disappeared or changed their minds. He adds that Keaton served five years in prison and killed three prisoners while he was there. He also tells Verbal that Keaton was dead, explaining that Keaton was seen walking into his own warehouse, which then blew up, while police were investigating the murder of a witness against him. The witnesses who saw this soon turned up dead. After someone else was convicted of the murder, they wanted to pin on Keaton, he turned up alive.

Agent Baer is still at the hospital and his translator arrives. He asks the man about the harbor shootout. The man tells him that there was no dope on the ship and that they weren't buying dope but people. He asks for protection saying he's in danger as he "saw the Devil." Baer prods him to explain that "the Devil" is Keyser Soze, who was in the harbor "killing many men." Baer tells the man to give a description of Soze to a sketch artist.

At the California police station, Kujan tells Verbal that he thinks Keaton is still out there and he's covering for him and that Keaton was behind everything. Verbal tells him that "the lawyer" was behind everything and Kujan wants to know what he means. Verbal tells him the lawyer's name was Kobayashi. We see the five men meeting Redfoot. He pays them for the emeralds and tells them about another job which McManus agrees to, despite Keaton being hesitant. Redfoot tells them the target is a jeweler named Saul. He's known to carry a lot of cash, so the plan is that they rob him of merchandise and cash, Redfoot gets the merchandise and they keep the cash. Keaton tells Redfoot that he shivved a mutual acquaintance in prison, to avoid Redfoot hearing from someone else.

The five of them hold up the jeweler who has bodyguards. The jeweler is stubborn however and things go wrong causing the crew to shoot the bodyguards and the jeweler. Rather than jewels, they find drugs in his case. McManus wants to kill Redfoot for the bad information. Redfoot reveals that he was given the job by someone else. Keaton insists that they meet the guy and Redfoot tells them that he wants to meet them too.

The talk with Verbal is interrupted when Agent Baer shows up looking for Kujan. He informs Kujan that there were no drugs on the boat. He asks if "the cripple" mentioned Keyser Soze, which means nothing to Kujan. Kujan goes back into the office and asks about Soze, prompting Verbal to exclaim "Oh, Fuck!" Verbal continues the story. The five of them are at the place where they're to meet the guy who set up the last job. The man, Kobayashi (Peter Postlewaite) shows up and identifies all of them, thanking them for getting rid of Saul. He explains that he works for Keyser Soze and that each of them has stolen from Soze in the past, although they didn't know it, because the people they stole from didn't know they were working for Soze. He proposes a very dangerous job,, which he doesn't expect them all to live through, although the survivors will be able to split 91 million dollars reminding them that they're only alive because they didn't knowingly steal from Soze. Kobayashi reveals that he arranged the line up where the five of them connected, intending to approach them then, except that Keaton's girlfriend got him out too quickly. Kobayashi also leaves them envelopes containing their complete records and pictures of their loved ones.The job is to interrupt a cocaine buy on a boat, destroy all the cocaine and keep whatever money is there.

 Verbal tells Kujan a story about Keyser Soze. He explains "the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." in relation to Soze's mythical status. He tells a story about a young Soze in Turkey, who was in conflict with a local mob. He says that the men found Soze's wife and kids at home and tortured and raped them while waiting for Soze, killing one of his kids in front of him to show they meant business. They demand his territory. Soze rather than give in, shoots his own wife and kids and then proceeds to kill everyone the men knew "He kills their kids. He kills their wives. He kills their parents and their parent's friends. He burns down the houses they live in and the stores they work in. He kills people that owe them money. And like that...he's gone. Nobody's ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night." Kujan seems amused, but Baer, who's listening in the other room mentions a guy with a file on Soze.

Verbal tells Kujan that he didn't mention this to the DA because such a fantastic story would've kept them from offering amnesty. Kujan tries to convince him to turn state's evidence, but Verbal isn't interested, content with his immunity. Kujan offers to protect Verbal from Soze, which Verbal finds laughable, telling him that all the pressure to release him is coming from Soze. Verbal picks up the story then telling Kujan that Fenster was gone the next morning after meeting Kobayashi as he couldn't stand the idea of working for Soze. Kobayshi called them and told them where to find Fenster and the four men find him dead on a beach. McManus insists on burying him. They decide to kill Kobayashi and set up an ambush in an office building elevator. They offer Kobayashi the chance to call it off, but Kobayashi won't be moved explaining that whatever they do is nothing compared to what Soze will do. He then asks if he can finish his business with Edie Finneran (Keaton's girlfriend) before they kill him. They check and find that Edie is indeed there with Kobayashi's escorts. He informs them that if he sees them before the job "Miss Finneran will be the victim of a most gruesome violation before she dies." as well as adding threats to the relatives of the other men.

The four of them scout the location, Keaton concluding that the job can't be done as there will be too many men on the boat. They have no choice however, and McManus sets up as a sniper, and Hockney sets an explosive, while Keaton boards. Keaton tells Verbal not to go and to find Edie afterwards and tell her "I tried." Hockney, Keaton and Mcmanus all board and start firing killing everyone they run into. Hockney finds a van full of crates of cash, only to get shot from behind a moment later. McManus shoots holes in the fuel drums. Kujan breaks in and asks Verbal why he didn't run. Verbal says he "froze up."

Their conversation is interrupted when a file comes over on one of the deceased from the boat, who it turns out was an Argentinian guy who was ratting out 50 people, including Keyser Soze. Kujan is given more information which we don't hear.. He rejoins Verbal in the office and tells him. "There was no dope on that boat." Back on the boat, the night of the job, we see one passenger in a private room, screaming "He's here. That's him. You hear me? I'm telling you, it's Keyser Soze!" McManus and Keaton comb the boat eventually running into each other. Keaton screams to McManus that "There's no coke!" McManus resolves to leave and Verbal comes on board. The Argentinian screaming about Soze watches the door handle turn and a figure opens it and approaches, which terrifies him. He pleads "I told them nothing"just before being shot.   Keaton sees McManus walk out a door and fall over dead from a knife in his back. Looking at McManus' body, Keaton is shot from above. Verbal sees it happen.

Kujan starts getting rough with Verbal telling him he's lying. He asks why Verbal didn't help Keaton as he had a gun. Verbal says he was afraid as he knew it was Keyser Soze. "It was Keyser Soze, Agent Kuljan, I mean the Devil himself. How do you shoot the Devil in the back? What if you miss?" Verbal the recalls that the man walked down to the deck and shot Keaton again before dropping his cigarette to start the fuel on fire as he walked away. Kuljan breaks in, telling Verbal that the money wasn't for dope, but to  buy the guy who was going to identify Keyser Soze and their whole job was a hit. Kuljan suggests that Keaton was behind everything and was actually Keyser Soze. He also reveals that Edie Finneran was found dead yesterday, shot in the head. He suggest that Keaton manipulated all of them and chose to leave Verbal alive because he was weaker than the others. At Kujjan's prodding, Verbal changes his story and says "It was all Keaton. We followed him from the beginning." claiming Keaton suggested hitting the taki service rather than McManus. Kuljan tells Verbal again that they can protect him and reveals that his bail posted 20 minutes ago. He reminds Kuljan that 'I'm not a rat." and excuses himself.

At the hospital, they fax over the sketch of Soze to Baer and Kuljan. Rabin and Kuljan discuss finding Keaton as Verbal reclaims his possessions on the way out. Kuljan remarks on the mess in Rabin's office. Rabin insists there's a system "You just have to step back from it." Kuljan, examining the bulletin board, drops his coffee mug realizing that many details from Verbal's story were pulled right from there including the labelling from the maker of the bulletin board, "Quartet, Skokie, Il" the name "Redfoot" and "Kobayishi" which was on the bottom of Kuljan's own coffee mug. As he scans it, he recalls matching bits from Verbal's story. Kuljan starts running for the street, as Baer finds the fax which looks like Verbal. We see Verbal walk
down the street limping until his leg suddenly straightened and he walks normally stepping into a car which is waiting for him, driven by the man we saw as Kobayashi.

What About it?

The Usual Suspects is a great example of "the unreliable narrator."  Even at the end when a major piece of the puzzle is given, we aren't left with any certainty other than the fact that Verbal Kint is likely Keyser Soze. Everything else that we've seen is suspect, from character interactions, to details of jobs. While we can assume the jobs happened, as Verbal would know the police would be aware of them, if not who did them. Everything that he relates is related for effect. Verbal gave Kuljan the story he wanted to hear even allowing him to fit Keaton in as his version of Soze. Kuljan was easy to manipulate because he had already stated "I'm smarter than you." Kuljan was already trying to make his own story out of Verbal's testimony, simply by telling him what he wanted to hear, which was really just a long way to let him believe that Keaton wasn't dead and could be the mastermind behind everything.

The film plays with Kuljan's assumptions just like it plays with yours. We have to assume that Verbal is a character that took some devotion to create as he has an arrest record previous to the line up. The traits that Verbal makes most obvious are those intended to be remembered by all who meet him. He's referred to by others as "the cripple." as his "handicap" is intentionally prominent. It's interesting that his physical limitation causes others to draw immediate conclusions about his mental ability. In Kuljan's interrogation, he plays on the idea that Verbal is the weak and stupid one in the group. He hammers on this point, trying to use Verbal's (assumed) inferiority complex against him. Verbal eventually makes full use of this perception, telling Kuljan that he begged Keaton to do the job so that he himself could be accepted as well as the boat incident, where he portrays himself as a scared witness who Keaton would've left behind.

Keaton and the viewer are given no reason to doubt Verbal's mental ability. We're initially told that Verbal came up with the plan to hit the taxi service. We also know that he's a known con man, and that some of his cons have paid well. Yet his apparent cerebral palsy and somewhat meek nature (in comparison to the other criminals) causes Kuljan to forget any wariness about Verbal. He assumes that Verbal is lying, but he mistakes how Verbal is lying. Verbal's key to Kuljan is that he knows Kuljan believes he already knows everything and adds the "facts" as they're discovered as if they were his own discovery and not what was told to him. The only story that would satisfy Kuljan is that Keaton is still alive, and beyond that, that Keaton being alive is a puzzle that only he himself could possibly solve. Like most good con games, this one lets Kuljan con himself.  

The performances here help the story a lot, Gabriel Byrne in particular, by playing a character that could feasibly be a Keyser Soze. Even though most of what he does is at least a partial invention by Verbal, we know that Keaton is a resourceful and powerful underworld figure, enough so that Kuljan the customs agent is obsessed with catching him. Byrne creates a character that we know isn't telling us everything. When his cohorts question him "retiring" we question it as well as his relationship with a top notch criminal lawyer seems a bit too convenient. Byrne is portrayed as the driving force of the group, and his acting has enough gravity to pull it off without ever claiming it himself. We want Keaton to be Keyser Soze because he fits the profile of the criminal genius that never tips his hand, content to pull the strings while others think they're directing themselves (as Verbal is doing.) If not for Byrne's  performance, Verbal's story would not be satisfying.

Palminteri is great as Kuljan, a character with flaws so obvious you almost feel bad for him at the end. Obnoxious and arrogant, he's the mirror of the criminals portrayed, doing his job more for the sake of his own ego as any need for justice. His name dropping of dangerous criminals and predictable scare tactics make him ridiculously easy to read. When he mentions being friends with the notorious criminal "Ruby" we can see that he says this as much to impress as to intimidate. We can also imagine that "Ruby" might have a different idea about their relationship.

The supporting cast is all top notch as well. Even Stephen Baldwin shines here as hothead looking to get into trouble. Benecio Del Toro's Fenster adds some welcome color, seemingly more concerned with dressing well than anything else. We're not shown any real skill that isn't already on the team but his accent and idiosyncracies make him important as an element of distraction. Kevin Pollak's non stop aggressive stance is tremendously entertaining and there's also the terrific performance by Peter Postlewaite, who exudes intimidation. his character never raises his voice or even gets flustered when his own life could be in danger. The menace that he adds, so matter of factly, is vital to the story of Soze, who we must imagine is that much more terrifying by extension.

Bryan Singer did a great job meticulously assembling this puzzle. I enjoyed that the reality of Rabin's office was relatively mundane, messy and drab, in contrast to Verbal's stories which were exciting and tense worthy of an action movie. The attention to details, coming out in the reveal and playing the nuances of Byrne and Spacey's performances against each other was very effective and the bulletin board reveal combined with the "straightening leg" was a terrific one two punch.

Spacey delivers terrifically with an interesting role. He has to play Verbal convincingly in such a way that we believe later, he could be the mythical arch criminal. His looks of boredom have to also pass as calculating. He is essentially playing two characters at the same time, in layers. Verbal is not just a thrown together persona, but a completely different person created for specific effect. Everything about him in intentional while seeming casual. The reveal at the end with Spacey simply changing his walk to become Soze, suits the character perfectly as the main difference between Soze and Verbal is that slight shift in perception.

The idea of Soze is an interesting one. His main power is our uncertainty that he exists, and scattered stories reminding everyone, that they may not want to find out. We don't know how much power he really has, as most of his reputation is established only by Verbal's story, but we know a man in the hospital, believes he's the Devil himself, which is at least fairly convincing. We also know that in the opening scene, Keaton is comfortable enough to call him by his first name, as if they were familiar partners. Verbal's claims are at least partially substantiated by the file that's kept on rumors of him, and certainly his portrayal of Verbal, a character which allows him to act directly while staying indirectly involved is a convincing point in his favor, that and the ability to construct a believable story from pieces of a strange bulletin board. The most terrifying thing about him is that he pays attention and is fully aware of the power of myth.

Verbal says "the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." This is a powerful idea and one Soze has modeled his presence around. What's more dangerous than the unknown, and how can you size up an opponent you can't see or get a single fact about? The scariest thing about it is "the Devil" here pays attention and knows the story you want to hear. He doesn't need to put a lot of work into fooling you, he simply has to present you with "the gimp" and fuel your own assumptions, which are typically more than enough to blind any of us in one way or another. The comparison to "the Devil" is appropriate in that the myth has power whatever the facts may be.
There are other Devil sayings that can fit here as well, "the Devil is in the details" which is certainly supported here as Soze uses the details to their best effect. There is also "The Devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand." which would make sense to me. That appropriateness shows through by Verbal fooling the cops with their own cases and personal details, all of which could be as known to them as they are to him, but they just don't pay attention like he does. At the end of it all, we know very little to be true, other than the fact that Verbal/Soze is a remarkably dangerous guy and that our own assumptions can easily be used against us.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it funny that Pete Postlethwaithe died a couple of days ago Brent! You obviously had this post planned a while ago so I'll just say RIP Pete.
The Usual Suspects is a fantastic thriller that demands repeated viewings and the final plot twist makes the ending one of the best in 90's cinema.
As usual your post makes me want to watch this film again,so I'll try and fit it in this weekend.

INDBrent said...

Yes RIP Pete Postelwaite. he was quite an actor. The timing of it struck me too as i had this picked out well befor I heard! He's really good here, and yes i love the fnal twist though it's hard to remember how I felt on my first viewing!

Widow_Lady302 said...

Now THIS movie is a good movie. The unreliable narrator is beautifully done, and it is Spacey at this finest in my opinion. I remember my reaction to the final twist, it was the purest OMG *facepalm* I've ever experienced. The story telling was so good, and I was so sucked into the narriative that I lost my usual ablity to deconstruct the flick. Great review, very worthy of the film...

With love, Keyser Soze....oh wait...don't believe me...don't....

INDBrent said...

Yeah it's definitely one of Spacey's beter moments and he's a pretty talented guy. I really wanted Keaton to live and be Soze so I was surprised myself.

Unknown said...

One of my all-times faves. I never get bored of this one. I love how Benicio del Toro turned, what was essentially a nothing role, into a memorable scene stealer. I love how he mangles his dialogue and the line-up scene is classic! This is a great review and it really makes me want to watch this film again! Great stuff.

INDBrent said...

THanks for the kind words! "Usual Suspects" is just brilliant and so much fun! THe ensemble here is unbeatable. I agree on Del Toro, a truly gifted actor, he makes the most of every second of screen time in a vedry natural way.

BRENT said...

This isn't just a good thriller it is one of the best films of the 1990's period.
As you know I have only seen it once as I have never wanted to lose within my mind the impact of that ending.
Well tonight courtesy of someone (!!!) I shall revisit it!! Hard to believe it was 18 years ago and yet I can still remember most of it.
I suppose its enduring greatness is that I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't rave about it. For the type of film it is with a narrater and flashbacks it is hard to beat. Spacey is excellent and went on to make American Beauty which is a firm favorite of mine. But after that he went off the boil as an actor. I think two very good roles in quick succession thrust him into the limelight too quickly and he got bombarded with too many role offers as a result. It hurt his career in my opinion for many years. He has been geting better in the last few years though which I welcome because when he's on he's on.

INDBrent said...

Awesome! Let me know how the second viewing works for you. I'd agree about Spacey going up and down. He's talented without question, and when he gets on a roll (good or bad) he runs it for quite awhile. I don't he ever gets to terrible at least.

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