The Usual Suspects was one of my favourite films from the 90s, which I remember fondly seeing back in 1995. I was just starting to become more of an avid filmgoer, and I was starting to follow reviews. I managed to see this one the very first week that it was out in Brisbane, at the very first screening on a Thursday morning. I distinctly remember that day because I was so mindblown that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for the rest of the day.
This film tells the story of five criminals in New York, who are pulled in for a police lineup, all loudly protesting their innocence. While moping around their gaol cell, they decide to band together to pull off a crime. And then another one. And then another.
In the meantime, in the present day (six weeks later), on the other side of America in California, police are questioning the two remaining survivors of a massacre on a burned-out boat in San Pedro Harbor. It seems that somehow these five criminals got themselves involved in what was going on in the boat.
Getting from the line-up to the boat is interesting enough, but when the name of Keyser Soze is mentioned, the story ramps up. All of a sudden, it seems that behind the crime on the boat may have been the most legendary mobster of all time – the Hungarian Keyser Soze. In fact, he’s so legendary, does he even exist?
This is just one of the many mysteries to come out in this amazingly complex mystery thriller. What made this film such a headtrip for many audiences was that the narrative of the story is rather unusual – it is all centred around an interview between tough Customs official, Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and the sole surviving of the five criminals, the crippled Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). Unlike a regular detective story, where we, the audience, only know as much as the detective finds out and usually share his level of knowledge, this story puts us in the position of observing the two men and trying to piece things together from what they tell us.
Both the interrogator and the interrogated know information that the other doesn’t, and as the interview progresses, both of the men feed us the information we need to put it all together. And the story is stretched to such an incredible level, that only really in the final minutes does everything come together. But the hour and a half leading up to that is never less than riveting.
A word also should be said about the phenomenal soundtrack by John Ottman. If a film like this was made nowadays, we’d give it a pumping rock soundtrack, without a doubt. But instead, Ottman (who also did the brilliant editing work on this film) crafted an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack. I had the chance to hear from John at a special Q & A in Sydney a couple of years ago, and amazingly they had to record the soundtrack in section with just a handful of stringed instruments, etc. because they didn’t have enough room in the studio to fit a full orchestra. You wouldn’t think to hear it – it’s incredibly rich and beautiful, and the opening and closing credits resemble more of a piano concerto than anything else. It turned the whole film into an elegant experience that is always dramatic.
For those who are sensitive about language, my memory of the film’s language was entirely correct. Before I saw this film, I wasn’t sure that it was entirely possible to swear this often, in so many ways. But it is, and Christopher McQuarrie’s script pulls no punches in giving us realistic criminal dialogue.
Watching it again after so many years, I wish I could get temporary amnesia and watch it knowing nothing about it, the way it was the first time – but it still holds up to multiple viewings quite well.
4 1/2 out of 5.