When I first watched “The Usual Suspects” in January at the Sundance Film Festival, I feared I may have seen too many films in one day and so had trouble keeping track of the narrative. Several people in the crowd seemed to like it, so when I went to see it again in July, I made sure to have a notebook with me so that I wouldn’t miss any of the action. When my understanding wavered once again, I penned the words “To the degree that I do comprehend, I don’t care.” Yet, it was rather heartening to realise at the film’s conclusion that I had, in fact, grasped all the key concepts. It’s simply that there wasn’t as much to figure out as the film may have you believe.
The plot advances to a startling reveal that changes the whole tenor of the film, but instead of delighting me, I was left with the impression that Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer would have been better off simply giving us a tale about their characters (at least the ones we know are genuine). I’m more impressed by inspiration than I am by deceit.
The film opens “last night” in San Pedro, California, with a massive explosion tearing a ship apart. To whom do we attribute the explosion’s detonation? Why? Kujan, a police officer played by Chazz Palminteri, is curious. With the wounded innocence of a child who ate all the cookies, Kevin Spacey’s Verbal, a shifty-eyed, club-footed crook, is the only witness he has to examine. Kujan and Verbal spend much of their time hidden away in the cop’s disorganised office, where Verbal lives up to his name by recounting a narrative so convoluted that I eventually stopped attempting to follow it and just filed new details under “More Problems.” The narrative is given in retrospect, you can watch it on gnula. We hear that a vehicle was hijacked a few weeks ago, and that the police later apprehended five of the culprits. They’re an eclectic bunch of lowlifes, with Spacey joined by the likes of Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, and Kevin Pollak. I can’t say for sure that they were all in on the hijacking, but Verbal claims that while they were in on up, they started planning a far more ambitious crime involving millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine.
Keyser Soze (pronounced “so-zay”) is a legendary Hungarian gangster who owns the drugs and is so dangerous that when his family is threatened in an attempt to get to him, he murders them all. This theft is no ordinary robbery. Mentioning the word “Size” is enough to make even the toughest of men queasy. He is like the hero of a children’s horror novel. Nevertheless, no one has ever laid eyes on him, therefore we have no idea what he looks like until we see a lookmovie. Mr. Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), Soze’s trusted assistant, is so menacing that we start to question whether he is indeed Soze himself.
The officer and suspect’s questioning follows the same predictable pattern: pleasantries, tension, anger, a major explosion with threats and reconciliation. Amazing tales about Soze abound (one survivor of the boat explosion, with burns over most of his body, drifts in and out of a coma but can talk of no one else). When listening to Verbal, we can see the scenes he narrates, giving his account an air of objectivity and making us forget that we’re simply hearing his side of the event.