MY FAVOURITE FILM
Why I love… The Usual Suspects
“It all started back in New York six weeks ago. A truck loaded with stripped gun parts got jacked outside of Queens.”
I have no idea why my sister let me watch The Usual Suspects with her and her friend back in 1996. They were 15. I was eight. Until then I’d existed entirely on a light diet of Disney and children’s films. The Usual Suspects was my first proper film, and I was blown away by it.
I didn’t want to be a writer back then – I wanted to be a spy, and then a detective – but I began to question those careers after seeing this amazing bit of storytelling.
It wasn’t until I was 17, watching it again, that I realised Bryan Singer’s film had an 18-rating. And that it had an almighty amount of swearing in it. Proper swearing, too.
I don’t remember any of that. My eight-year-old self’s ears were unfamiliar with the 98 or so f-bombs and their more colourful variants spewed across the screen.
But I remembered everything else. The plot. That ending. The characters: Dean Keaton, Verbal Kint, Todd Hockney, McManus, Fenster, Agent Kuyan, Mr Kobayashi… Keyser Söze.
Who is Keyser Söze?
So what’s the film about? Five career criminals get arrested on a trumped-up charge, then take on a job that leaves 27 dead. The police have no answers, all they have are two survivors and a name: Keyser Söze.
I didn’t know about Darth Vader back then. I wouldn’t come across Hannibal Lecter for another six years. Voldemort didn’t exist yet. For me, Keyser Söze was The Great Villain.
He was the criminal bogeyman, a legendary mastermind pulling strings from the shadows, the “spook story that criminals tell their kids at night”. Or the devil himself, according to Verbal Kint.
But as omnipresent as Söze was, it was just five guys that had me hooked to the film from the start. Five guys in a police line-up.
It’s an iconic scene. Whether you’ve seen the film it or not, you’ve seen the poster of Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollack, Benicio Del Toro and Kevin Spacey standing up against the wall in a police station. It was that one single image that writer Christopher McQuarrie started off with, and it’s the scene that makes the film.
“Hand me the keys, you f*****g c********r.”
That one scene (and the arrests preceding it) is all you need to know about these five guys. They’re established in that scene, those five criminals. You didn’t need any more exposition to know how they knew each other, or what they were like. Those few seconds, repeating that same profanity-filled line in their own distinct ways – we knew who these guys were in that scene alone.
They’re not lovable characters. They’re the bad guys themselves, with few or no redeeming qualities. But it’s the fractious chemistry between them – a mixture of getting along mingled with being at each other’s throats all the time – that makes them so watchable. They’re not friends, they’re professionals: they’re only working together because of a shared threat.
It’s not a flashy, explosion-filled movie. The tension simmers away underneath as we get closer and closer to finding out Keyser Söze’s identity. It isn’t until the end that you step back and truly appreciate the tightly woven plot strands running through the entire film, all leading up to the incredible big reveal.
It’s no headscratcher like Memento or Inception. The end does make you go back and wonder which bits of the film are true, even if you’re sure you know who Keyser Söze is. It’s simple, it’s effective and it’s bloody brilliant.
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
For me, there is no ambiguity – I know who I think Keyser Söze is at the end of the film, but that doesn’t diminish the rest of the film in any way. It makes it even more interesting, more layered, like marvelling at a magician’s method even after he’s revealed his trick. It doesn’t lose its effect over time, either. That lightbulb moment that hits Agent Kujan still sends a jolt through my brain.
I wish I could explain better how much I love this film. It’s not a film I can easily gush about. It’s not the prettiest film – there are no jaw-dropping gorgeous shots like in Star Trek (2009). It doesn’t make me cry with heartache like Atonement. I can’t gleefully quote every line like I can with Clueless. And I can’t gush about how much Jack Skellington and I love Christmas.
But The Usual Suspects is, and has always been, my favourite film of all time. It’s the coolest, most quietly confident and brilliant story I’ve seen on screen.
Kashfia Kabir is multimedia journalist on What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision.
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