"The Usual Suspects" (Bryan Singer, 1998) A truck hi-jacking occurs. As a result, a motley collection of grifters are called together for a police line-up in an effort by U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) to frame one of them, Dean Keegan (Gabriel Byrne). Instead of proving there's no honor among thieves, the five criminals decide to collaborate on a defiantly ingenious crime-spree, which eventually runs afoul of a major international organization run by the legendary crime boss Keyser Söze. Before too long all but one of the collaborators is dead, and the remaining is in police custody, for once unwilling to talk for fear of his life. Ironically, his name is Verbal. Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey).
It is only when Söze's name becomes known to the police that Verbal begins to babble, filling in the many gaps that Kujan and local police sergeant Rabin (Dan Hedaya) don't know, starting with that fateful line-up of Keaton, McManus (Stephen Baldwin), the almost-incomprehensible small-timer Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), smart-ass chopper Hockney (Kevin Pollak, never better), and Kint, and the ever-more elaborate coups they pull off, ending with the death of nearly everyone on a freighter that has blown up the night previous. As Keaton has eluded him before, Kujan is convinced that he's the one behind it all, but Kint swears he's wrong, as he was the only surviving witness to Keaton's death at the hands of Keyser Söze. And Kint's tale is the proof of it. Keaton is dead. Keyser Söze lives. And Kint is terrified, convinced that, now that Söze's name is known, he'll be accused of being a rat. And because he's seen Söze's face, he won't be allowed to live.
Meticulously cast, directed just-so, with a ribald sense of language, irony and black humor, The Usual Suspects is a fine example of editorial legerdemain, one of the neatest tricks to pull off in the movies—especially considering that audiences to mystery films are usually five steps ahead of the movie. How can they not, as the director Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich) says in Targets: "All the good movies have been made," and all the plots have been used, and all the tricks have been revealed.
IF, gentle reader, you have not yet seen The Usual Suspects, PROCEED NO FURTHER, please. As much as I try to dance around the issue not revealing too much, I have to concede that, beyond this line and, indeed, for the rest of today's post, THERE BE SPOILERS, and they will irreparably destroy any first viewings of The Usual Suspects. Trust me on this, I am not kidding, and don't come whining to me if you are so unwise as to not heed this warning!!! (The only worse fate would be having to transcribe Benicio del Toro's dialogue).
There are a lot of great lines in The Usual Suspects, but that one is a key one. What is it saying, actually? It's hard to penetrate its meaning, and after staring at it and parsing it (but not going so far as to "diagram" it), I finally gave up with an aching head and just said "It's a black-hole of a sentence."
But, then, so is the movie. All of it. A double-negative with a marked-for-dead "X" at its center, The Usual Suspects is constructed like a tight thriller, when it really is not. The answer to the riddle is there, almost from the beginning. But, we, the audience, never see, it even though we have. And we probably don't even realize we were told after the movie is over. It comes down to one shot. One shot at the center of the situation, and like a black-hole, and like any unsolved mystery, there is nothing there...but what we put into it.
It is a pull-in of wharf jetsam—pallets, rope and crab-pots discarded pell-mell on the San Pedro dock occupied by the freighter, as it, and what remains of the Keaton gang, goes up in a big ball of flame, illuminating the night-sky and the junk on the dock. The shot continues slowly boring in on the circle of ropes in the center of the frame. What we see is junk, complicated, random, but the devil is in the details. Since the director is taking us there, this shot must be of some import. It is, for the movie (why wouldn't it be?). I remember, sitting in the theater, watching this stretch of film, as it moved ever closer, thinking: "Who's behind the ropes watching this?" At the end of the shot, it might even be revealed who it was, behind this, the witness to the events, the guy with the knowledge of the events that were unfolding in the heat and the flash.
Nothing is revealed, ultimately. The scene goes into a long, slow, lingering transition to Verbal being interrogated. We won't be told why we're there until later in the picture, once all the names are known, and the ultimate triumph of Söze is at its end-game. For the moment, though, that empty shot is just another piece of the puzzle at its center. A lot more pieces must be placed before we can be given the context of what lies at the empty center of this shot.
We have a compact—we, the audience and the creators of movies. Their job is to re-create a reality and ours is to accept it as truth. We come to "buy," not only our tickets, but also the verisimilitude of the flickering images on the screen (itself an illusion, a series of still images run at a speed to fool the eye into thinking it a seamless reality). That compact is an agreed contract. We accept that it is not reality ("It's only a movie," "No, honey, the blood isn't real..."), but for the sake of drama we put that aside for entertainment. It is the director's intention to fool us—presenting artifice as reality. Yet, to fulfill the expectations of entertainment, audiences must offer a suspension of dis-belief, while, at the same time, having absolute faith in the veracity of the writer-director. If we are shown something, it must be important, not only to the story, but also the story-telling. If we are presented something on the screen, it must be for a good reason. If not, the director has broken his contract. He has gone beyond manipulating the images...and manipulating us.
But, that is their job from the beginning. To calculate the equation of Artifice = Reality. But, it takes a director with the true knowledge of how powerful film is in its effect on the audience to go beyond the usual movie-magic of presenting Reel Life as Real Life, to presenting fiction as fact and getting away with it—to mis-lead us—to break the trust between director and audience and make us smile at the subterfuge.
Like the shot in Rear Window of Torvald escorting his wife (with luggage) on a trip that goes unnoticed by the protagonist, it is superfluous, intended not for the story...but for the viewing audience. It's a little seed of doubt sewn by the director to keep us guessing. Or, in another case of Hitchcock, the elaborate crane shot that follows Norman Bates up the staircase to retrieve his mother in Psycho, a move designed to call attention to itself and not to what is going on on-screen. A feint. A slight-of-hand (and camera).
So, what of that empty image that must stand for (or in front of) something in The Usual Suspects? Later in the film, director Singer will take us back to this place. To put words to the image, as Kint describes his flight from the carnage of the freighter and watches Keegan's execution at the hands of Söze—the only reliable witness to the act.
Kujan doesn't believe it. He's convinced that Keegan is Söze, the criminal plays all leading to a supposed drug-deal at the freighter—just a ruse for Söze to kill the one man capable of identifying him. Söze's deals with the Keegan gang are small-time, just so he can slip unnoticed onto that one ship and assassinate the man who has seen him. His ends justify the means, creating a subterfuge for the ultimate goal. And director Singer, does the same thing, using our trust and knowledge of movies to include a shot that tells us nothing, and is, for all intents and purposes except of its own, meaningless.
The lesson that we ultimately learn (as also, too late and to a lesser extent, does Kujan in the film) is the undeniable fact of this story, and of movie-making itself: The devil does exist, and he is in the details.
Even if we don't see him.
"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist."