Hollywood has a long history of effective plot twists, from Psycho and Planet of the Apes to Memento and even Saw. But there’s a huge difference between artful misdirection and outright deception.The Usual Suspects—nearly universally heralded—deceives an audience that’s all too willing to bow down to the almighty twist. There’s an adrenaline rush of surprise when you see Verbal Kint’s pigeon-toed limp loosen into the confident stride of Keyser Söze. Once that wears off, there’s precious little to this film other than ham-fisted acting, creaky “zingers” and a nonsensical plot. Not to mention that everything depicted in the flashback scenes is complete bullshit.

The structure of the film is based on the conceit that Verbal (Kevin Spacey) is telling the truth. Smug Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) interrogates the deformed patsy about a boatload of burned corpses, and Verbal tells of joining a pack of relatively adept criminals, most of whom ended up extra-crispy. The quintet of crooks met in a police lineup for some “trumped up charge.” After a plethora of uninteresting twists and turns, the heat turns up when they’re blackmailed into a likely suicide mission by criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. During the flashback sequences that make up the bulk of the film, we’re only allowed to see what comes out of (former Skokie, Illinois barbershop quartet member) Verbal’s mouth.

In expository voiceover, Verbal tells us all that we need to know about this ragtag band of one-dimensional usual suspects. There’s the black-turtleneck-wearing wild card McManus (Stephen Baldwin), who’s “a good guy—crazy though.” He’s partners in crime with mush-mouthed Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), “a real tight ass, but when it came to the job he was right on.” The mostly forgettable Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak) is allegedly good with explosives and “the one guy who didn’t give a fuck about anybody.” Finally, the recalcitrant Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) wants to go straight. The disabled Verbal has to twist Keaton’s arm to join the crew because otherwise they won’t take him along. That’s about all the character development we get, other than that they like to fire their handguns with a side grip and say things like “What about it, pretzel man?”, “Elvis has left the building” or “Oswald was a fag!”

The plot pretends to be complex, but it’s quite simple. The pensive Hitchcockian score is reinforced by the fact that anything can serve as a MacGuffin. A truckload of stolen guns that may not have existed prompts the police lineup that gets the crew together. This leads to a robbery from corrupt cops, which leads to a jewel heist that turns into a drug heist —but, really, what does it matter. These events are only set into motion so that a lawyer named Kobayashi, who allegedly works for Söze, can blackmail the crew. For no good reason, the group pulls one job after another. If the ensemble exchanged witty banter or built believable tension, this hollow plot device could set up quality entertainment. Instead, we have cardboard cutouts of criminals whose repartee consists mostly of shouting “fuck you!” without letting ubiquitous cigarettes drop from their lips.

The mythology surrounding Söze reaches cartoonish levels both in Verbal’s narration and in the hazy flashbacks of a longhaired, arson-minded Turk willing to shoot his own wife and children just to prove a point. Through garbage lines like “Now you talk to me, or that precious immunity they seem so fit to grant you won’t be worth the paper the contract put out on your life is printed on,” Agent Kujan seemingly wears down Verbal to the point that he is forced to admit that his buddy Keaton must really be Söze. Despite a scene where Verbal shoots a man square in the forehead— thereby implying that he’s confessed to murder during the course of his interrogation— Kujan thinks he’s proven his point and lets Verbal walk. Of course, that’s where the Agent notices that (through some kind of super-vision that allows him to both see fine print on a bulletin board across the room and an inscription on the underside of a coffee mug) Verbal has actually just been pulling all his little details about barbershop quartets and lawyers named Kobayashi from objects around the room. Dun, dun, dun… the “stupid cripple” is really Keyser Söze!

The Usual Suspects has aged terribly. It’s difficult to watch this movie (which admittedly has moments of clever editing) and not consider the far superior tension, cinematography and character development of fellow organized crime entertainment “Breaking Bad.” That’s made even more apparent when the actor behind Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) waltzes across the screen as a cigar-chomping FBI agent.

Whereas Fight Club suffered from a certain level of illogic due to an unreliable narrator, The Usual Suspects flat out lies. Since many of the names used in the smokescreen that Verbal/Söze spews for Agent Kujan were improvised, the bulk of the movie is one big con. This is a twist ending on the order of, “it was all a dream.” It’s the kind of twist that cuts the legs out from the whole endeavor. Still, audiences and critics gobbled this shit up. Rotten Tomatoes rates the movie at a sterling 88% fresh, IMDB users currently rank it as the 23rd greatest film ever and UK-based Total Film magazine listed the climax as the best twist ending in movie history. Spacey hammed it up enough to receive an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Yet, without believable characters, compelling motivation, well-written dialogue or a very interesting plot, the greatest trick The Usual Suspects ever pulled was to convince the world it was more than a twist.

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8 Comments

  1. TNT

    May 26, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Completely agree with everything you said. When I saw this movie, the “twist” surprised me in the worst way possible: it was not surprising in the “I didn’t see it coming” kind of way, it was surprising in the “what the hell was the point of watching” kind of way. I gave it the benefit of the doubt, tried to watch it again after a while to see what people saw in it, and I couldn’t even finish it the second time around without fast forwarding.

    Reply

  2. Emil Nashi

    February 20, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    Excellent editorial. I would trust your movie recommendations after reading this review. I cannot understand the accolades this movie received.

    Reply

  3. Miken

    March 17, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    It pretends to be clever by being incredibly vague, and I walked away unfulfilled.

    Reply

  4. Anonymous

    June 1, 2017 at 5:25 am

    The Usual Suspects is one of the greatest movies to ever be produced.
    The story is complex and interesting and it keeps you on your feet for the entire movie
    with beautifully made plot twists and an even better storyline. SO when you say that it is overrated it shows that you have no knowledge
    about this movie or any other movie out there. This movie is a masterpiece unlike you horrible editorials.

    Reply

    • vernon maxwell

      November 27, 2017 at 6:56 pm

      haha u dumb

      Reply

  5. Ramanan

    August 11, 2017 at 11:26 pm

    God.

    I think you’ve missed the plot.

    It’s not complete lies. It’s a mix of lies and truth.

    This FAQ is a good summary: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114814/faq

    Reply

  6. Brian.

    May 2, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    The main issue is all that story, pointlessly told by Verbal since he had immunity, and for what? After the big reveal/ twist, when the smoke clears no one seems to realize (in real life) that now they know what he looks like. Never did before. Never even knew if KS was real, now they have a face and alias. Love the movie, but come on

    Reply

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