One of the coolest, stand-out films of the 90s, The Usual Suspects remains just as powerful and ambitious today, though something of a cloud has been cast over it due to the misgivings of some involved.
Since its release 25 years ago, multiple allegations of abuse against both its star, Kevin Spacey, and director, Bryan Singer, have effectively ended their respective careers. Their presence within the film can make it more uncomfortable viewing today and what is now known about them could put off those who are still to see it.
The actions of these two, though, do not and should not render such a game-changing film worthless. If anything, The Usual Suspects feels even more distinctive and effective in an age when films as daring and impeccably constructed are becoming scarcer.
If you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects, please go and do so as soon as possible. Put this article to one side and come back when you have watched it. More so than probably any other film, the less you know about it going in, the better your experience and the greater its impact will be.
The main plot of a group of criminals who find themselves forced into making a dangerous heist instigated by a notorious crime lord may not sound too revolutionary or particularly interesting. What makes it memorable is how the film makes use of its central themes, depicts everything on-screen and builds to an unforgettable conclusion.
There have been plenty of films since that have finished with a twist ending. But not many of those have been so well constructed that it can hinge everything on its final reveal and execute it to perfection.
After everything in the film has seemingly been resolved, there are suddenly so many new possibilities brought up, but audience is left with an idea of what it was that happened, or might have happened.
It’s interesting to think that, if the film were made in today’s hyper-connected age, whether its big secrets could have remained so on theatrical release, and if the reaction would be the same if everyone knew. We’ve seen films like Seven, The Sixth Sense and Audition losing their impact when their big twists became common knowledge, but The Usual Suspects’ effect is dependent on audiences seeing it all unfold without knowing what’s to come.
It helps that the ending works only in context with the film and is hard to explain without first understanding the plot. Even so, the secret should be left so for everyone to see it for themselves. The final revelation also gives new longevity to the film, with new meaning and interpretation given to the way characters interact, shots are framed and dialogue is constructed with each repeat viewing.
A new, inorganic issue The Usual Suspects now faces is getting audiences today to separate art from artist. Singer may well be calling the shots behind the camera and Spacey has the bulk of the screen time in the lead role of Verbal Kint, but there is plenty of great artistry gone into the film that give it a lasting longevity.
One is screenwriter Chris McQuarrie. His intricately plotted script also has plenty of quotable dialogue and compelling characters – none more so than the antagonist, the endlessly enigmatic Keyser Soze. Just in the way other characters talk about in the film, McQuarrie has ingeniously created a highly intriguing, compelling and frightening villain who, with no definite sightings at any point, may not even exist.
Much credit should also go to John Ottman, serving in the dual role of editor and composer. His score perfectly complements the action and does well to draw the audience into proceedings, without trying to manipulate them at the same time. He is also responsible for assembling the ending, and it’s his fast-paced, multi-faceted editing style that makes it work.
On-screen, the anchoring performance of the film is Chazz Palminteri as FBI agent Kujan. He believes he can piece together the evidence and solve the big mystery surrounding Keyser Soze. In doing so he leads the audience into a false sense of security with a convincing hypothesis, only to make way for an even bigger sudden shock at the end. At the same time, Stephen Baldwin and Benicio Del Toro rightly steal each one of their scenes in their respective roles of McManus and Fenster.
Even today, everything that made The Usual Suspects the hit it was in 1995 still works. A tremendous amount of care and enthusiasm evidently went into the making of this film and that has endured. Its ingenious concept was perfectly executed. As a result the film, a quarter-century later, still feels fresh and unlike any other film around.
The film won Christopher McQuarrie an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Kevin Spacey for Best Supporting Actor. The Usual Suspects completes 25 years today.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime, Netflix (outside India)