Have you seen The Usual Suspects?
Then STOP READING THIS, queue it up on Netflix — assuming it’s still streaming… I feel like half the time I want to watch something there, it’s been taken down since I last checked — and avoid all other discussion of the movie. So much of it is based on spoilable plot and character revelations that you’ll enjoy it more the less you the know about it.
Any lingerers who still haven’t seen it? Yeah?
Here’s a video of freestyle canoeing:
Okay, guys, I think we lost the last the last of those unspoiled stragglers.
So how about that ending, huh?
I rank it as one of my top three movie endings with Toy Story 3 and The Shawshank Redemption, maybe at the very top.
It’s the ultimate final twist. It has all of the ingredients of a forehead-smacking WTF twist. First, the story is framed as a mystery: Who is Keyser Soze? Thus, there’s an intrinsic longing to figure out who it is.
Then, we’re given a misdirection twist that would have been a very good ending in its own right: Keaton is Soze. This is the kind of twist I expected as I watched the movie the first time, that it’d be someone familiar. Keaton seemed the obvious choice.
So Verbal learns that Keaton is Soze. Verbal is heartbroken that his friend betrayed him. He leaves. Keaton is dead.
And just as your brain is ticking — “Wait a minute… At the beginning, didn’t we see somebody ELSE named Keyser kill Keaton?” — and you realize the pieces don’t quite add up, we get this:
A final, bigger, better twist.
It was Verbal all along. Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze. (Although, since it isn’t explicitly stated, some people like to interpret it otherwise. See the end of the post for a couple of thoughts on this.)
The movie goes one step further, though, implying that Verbal was fooling not only the detective, but the VIEWERS. He made up details, maybe even his whole story, as he was telling the story — and we were witnessing it.
So the movie suggests we can’t trust it. This is something that has been criticized by a lot of people. I’ve read that the ending renders the whole movie moot, a frustrating waste of time. (Roger Ebert famously made this complaint — The Usual Suspects ranks right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a great movie Ebert didn’t like.)
Obviously, I disagree — I think that’s what makes the movie so great. It’s not only a great ending on a plot level, but it’s an ambiguous note that forces you to carefully consider the movie’s storytelling devices. What’s real? What’s imagined? What parts of the movie can we trust? Just a lot of fun to think about.
I like this ending more than other perception-altering twists, like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, because so much emphasis is placed from the beginning on the mysterious identity of Keyser Soze and of the role of Verbal’s telling of the story. Although it hits you hard, it’s feels less out of left field than many twist endings.
Because pretty much any discussion of The Usual Suspects relates to its ending, I often forget to praise the plot that leads up to it. I won’t waste much time recapping the plot here because, as we verified at the beginning of the post, only people who have seen the movie should be reading this.
The Usual Suspects features some fantastic writing, good dialogue, a twisty plot, and excellent direction. Bryan Singer owes his career to this movie, the first one he directed. It won two Oscars, one for its screenplay and one for Spacey’s performance, but Singer is the architect, and writer Christopher McQuarrie is his partner in crime. The Usual Suspects is still Singer’s biggest achievement.
I also want to praise the fantastic score by John Ottman. It amplifies the mysterious, old-school noir feel of the movie. I remember that it took all of about five minutes before I fell in love with the movie the first time I saw it, and I attribute a lot of that to its orchestral score.
In all, it’s just a great, well-crafted, thought-provoking movie with a pantheon-level ending. I get chills every time I watch it. Those last few moments:
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist… And like that, he’s gone.”
A couple other thoughts:
- There are some interesting arguments that Verbal is not actually Keyser Soze, but that someone else (or nobody) is. I think it’s pretty clear that Verbal is implied to be Soze. But it’s also clearly designed to inspire discussion and interpretation: pretty much everyone involved with making the movie has said “we wanted it to be somewhat ambiguous.” Other theories I’ve read are that: Keyser Soze is everyone in the lineup — Keaton calling his killer “Keyser” seems to refute this — or that the guy Verbal calls Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) is actually Keyser.
- Legend has it that Singer and writer McQuarrie convinced the actors for most of the major characters that they were Keyser Soze (even Detective Kujan, which would have been another wild way to end the movie), so everyone acted as if they could have been.
- A few tidbits that point very specifically to Verbal being Keyser: In the opening scene, Soze’s pee seems comes out a weird consistency (like Verbal says his does). In the last scene, Verbal uses the same lighter and type of cigarette that Soze does in the opening scene. Also, Soze is Turkish for “talkative” or “verbal” – eh?
- This movie is a gold mine for almost-casting legends that I’ve read all over the Internet (which may or may not be true). One interesting one: Singer wanted to cast Redfoot, a pretty minor character, as a celebrity. Johnny Cash was offered the role, as were several A-list actors like Jeff Bridges.
- But the big almost-casting tidbit for The Usual Suspects is that Al Pacino was offered the role of Detective Kujan. Pacino wanted the part but had a scheduling conflict, and has apparently said he regrets not making time for it. That’s a pretty great casting “what-if” – it’s not hard to imagine Pacino bringing the part to the next level, no offense to Chazz Palminteri.
- The lineup scene is the source of much mythology. Apparently it was shot a bunch of different times and a bunch of different ways, but the one in the final cut was one where the actors were goofing around on, as Singer had told them it was a dry run.
- Benicio Del Toro supposedly came up with the idea of having his character have a strange, indecipherable accent, and Singer liked it so much he asked the other actors to improvise around it.
- One of my favorite splurge-purchases ever: At a poster sale, I bought a 10×12 print of a shot from the movie — the guys standing in the lineup — which I framed and have had in my office for about six or seven years now.
- Public service announcement: Obviously, don’t spoil the ending of this movie for people who haven’t seen it. But I’ll go one step further: Please do not tell people who haven’t seen The Usual Suspects that it has a great twist ending, even if you don’t spoil specifically what the twist is. In fact, don’t ever tell people that a movie or book has a twist ending. It’ll just raise their expectations. Knowing that something has a cool twist, even if you don’t know what the twist is, almost always results in guessing the twist or being disappointed.