Classic Review – The Usual Suspects (1995)

Pete Postlethwaite as the mysterious Kobayashi

“I’m the one that’s gonna get ya, I just wanted you to know that”

The Usual Suspects

Directed by Bryan Singer

Starring Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin

Review by Jordan

What is the best movie ever made? Is there a single one that when judged on its technical merits stands out above all others? Or does the key to success lie in a film’s ability to create an emotional connection with its viewer that lingers as either devastating or uplifting once the credits have come and gone?

If these criteria are to be considered then there is little wonder why Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) is so frequently touted, along with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – all titles that succeed tremendously in their structure, character development, direction, world creation and involvement.

However, it could be equally as appropriate to forget logic altogether in this regard and simply trust our instinct. We each have a favourite movie, and to us, in our own private words where we reign supreme, it is without fault or issue  and essential to the very fabric of cinematic history itself.

So, what’s the definitive, unquestionable, unmistakably complete best movie ever made? The Usual Suspects of course.

Kevin Spacey in his Academy Award winning role as Verbal Kint

Kevin Spacey in his Academy Award winning role as Verbal Kint

Five criminals have been apprehended for questioning over the hijacking of a truck in Queens; the charismatic but crazy McManus (Baldin), his partner Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), ex-cop and now businessman Keaton (Byrne), explosives expert and general low-life Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and reserved, crippled con-man (and the film’s narrator) Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). Why the police would bring five known criminals together for a seemingly random line-up is a mystery, what happens once they’re released a masterful, multi-layered, thrilling example of precision storytelling. Originally planning one quick job to get back at the Feds, the crew eventually find themselves confronted by Kobayashi (the one-and-only Pete Postlethwaite), who claims to be a lawyer working for a man many believe doesn’t exist at all, but is feared and respected by all who do; Keyser Soze.

Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof. He’s gone.

Keyser Soze puts forward a proposition that can’t be refused, and suddenly the clearer everything seems, the more murky it becomes, and by the time we arrive at the ship featured at the film’s opening the level of anticipation is so great that only the perfect ending will suffice. Thankfully, that is what we get. For its entire running time The Usual Suspects, thanks to Singers assured direction and Christopher McQuarrie’s exquisite writing, defies expectations and succeeds mightily in creating an almost mythological story featuring the most enigmatic villain of the ‘90’s, tremendously uttered, cracking dialogue and performances that emit both restrained humour and dire urgency as needed from characters navigating through a situation more treacherous than Dante’s (Kevin Spacey was awarded Best Supporting actor at the 1996 Academy Awards, and Christopher McQuarrie Best Original Screenplay). I realise I’m being tremendously vague with the plot details, but truly its best to exercise ignorance here and jump in as I did the first time, completely unaware of what to expect.

He lets the last Hungarian go. He waits until his wife and kids are in the ground and then he goes after the rest of the mob. He kills their kids, he kills their wives, he kills their parents and their parents’ 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 was gone. Underground. Nobody has ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. “Rat on your pop, and Keyser Soze will get you.” And no-one ever really believes.

Along with the aforementioned cast members, another that warrants a special mention is Chazz Palminteri (A Bronx Tale, Jade, Analyze This) as US Customs officer Dave Kujan; a character equally important as Verbal in driving the narrative. He arrives at the station to begin his questioning with confidence and swagger, but gradually succumbs to his own intimidating interrogation methods striving to be both a confidant and detective; it’s these supporting players, as well as a pleasantly understated, classic score and realistic locations that add a level of depth to proceedings, and erases the notion that crime or action films can be enjoyed only by men.

It was Keyser Soze, Agent Kujan. I mean the Devil himself. How do you shoot the Devil in the back? What if you miss?

The great and inspirational Roger Ebert didn’t get much wrong in his time as writer for the Chicago Sun Times, but along with his derision of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), his simplistic analysis and critique of The Usual Suspects stands as a rare misstep. If the peoples opinion counts for anything then a placing of no.26 in IMDBs top 250 represents a fantastic compliment of what Singer and McQuarrie achieved, as does its frequent references in pop culture and of course those two Academy Awards. A neo-noir shot through with jet-black wit, sudden violence and enough swearing to make Randal Graves blush, this really is an icon of American cinema, being no less important than any of the works of Howard Hawks, John Ford or Sam Peckinpah, yet due to its unfathomably low exposure today somehow exists as a cult film.

It should also be noted how well this plays on repeat viewings; rewarding concentration and dissection by throwing hints that if missed the first or second time around, jump out and slap you around the face when proceedings become more clear. Scenes that at first appeared fillers suddenly become essential, minor character traits become major and what is hidden more important than what is shown, all indicating a project undertaken with care and precision, rendering it an absolute pleasure to watch and discuss (see my brief review for my Top 30 Films of all Time here). When it was released in 1995 The Usual Suspects became instantly recognisable for two main reasons: the ending and Kevin Spacey’s breakout performance, now, it should be recognised as no less than a fully-fledged, fully-formed masterpiece.

This is a movie I have seen more than any other.

The best movie ever made.

5 porcelain coffee cups out of 5

Stephen Baldwin and Benicio Del Toro

Stephen Baldwin and Benicio Del Toro as Fenster and McManus

28 responses to “Classic Review – The Usual Suspects (1995)

  1. I have to completely agree with you on the count that this remains one of my all time favorite movies ever. Period. No strings attached to that statement.

    Loved how you have dissected what made the movie work without giving away any spoilers for the miniscule population of the world who probably haven’t seen it yet 😀

    Lovely post

    • Hi Mahabore, I’m very glad you agree so much! This was a title I picked up at the video store when I was very young, just hoping for some violence and explosions… needless to say its been my favourite movie ever since.
      Cheers, Jordan

  2. When a movie hinges on an enormous twist, and you can still enjoy it after a million viewings, you know the movie is amazingly good. It’s one of my all-time favorites; I love it beyond love. However, I must point out that the Godfather is the greatest film of all time. It’s the only perfect movie ever made, bar none. But Usual Suspects goes on my top ten list, maybe my top five. A great, great film.

    • I can absolutely understand your points on The Godfather, and that’s great to hear that Usual makes your top 5! I love showing it to people that have never seen it, not only to see their reaction, but as an excuse to keep re-watching it ha.

  3. The time I was this movie was in a film class in college. This was one of the movies that we were able to write a paper on. I instantly loved this movie after watching it once. Usual Suspects is definitely one of the best movies out there.

  4. I’m surprised you think this is one of the greatest. I’m guessing you’ve read my review of it already but if you haven’t make sure to do so. Spacey is fantastic in this but I feel the rest of the crew members didn’t have much to work with. It’s one worth watching, but I found the supporting cast to be lacking aside from Chazz Palminteri, who you mentioned. I also have a problem putting Bryan Singer, who can’t direct to save his life when it comes to the x-men movies he’s done, as the director of the best movie ever made.

    • Yeah I think its important to read a different opinion to your own, although I do disagree with your observations on Gabriele Byrne’s character Keaton – I think he has just as much importance, and room to breath as Kint and Kujan. I’d argue that the only character not fleshed out is Todd Hockney, but he certainly doesn’t need to be, as these criminals aren’t exactly going to provide exposition on their lives or motivations to each other.
      Singer’s work on X-Men, X2 and Valkyrie rounds out a fantastic career so far… I even loved Jack the Giant Slayer for what it was.
      Cheers, Jordan

  5. One of my faves too. Memories too of being a student and gathering in someone’s room and them saying, “Guys, you’ve got to watch this…” and then “Do you get it yet?” all the way through. I didn’t even see what there was to “get” until the twist. Just brilliant.

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  7. This definitely brings back memories. I didn’t really catch everything hen I first saw it. I think I was like 5 or something. But you do indeed catch things you missed after repeat viewings. Great review and I’m jealous of your site’s design lol.

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