Five criminals with widely diverse rap sheets are brought together in a police holding cell to appear in a line-up. As it happens, none of them were involved with the crime for which they have been arrested: supposedly. The meeting, however, inspires them to pool their talents for a job.
Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) is an ex-cop, ex-con with a heavy reputation for corruption, murder and faking his own death before re-emerging and going straight as a slick businessman with the support of his lawyer girlfriend Edie (Suzy Amis).
McManus (Stephen Baldwin in his best role) is a “top-notch entry man” and one hell of a shot. Fenster (Benicio del Toro affecting a hilariously incomprehensible mush-mouthed speech pattern) is his weirdo partner.
Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak) is “good with explosives”, and “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) is a “short con operator” and the loquacious cripple whose narrative is the thread we are directed to cling on to.
The film opens on a scene of carnage as a mystery man in a suit executes Keaton. This sequence is subsequently revisited and revised several times through Verbal’s account and as the scene imagined by his dogged interrogator, Federal agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), who is too fixated on his own theory of what transpired to “stand back from it” and “look at it right”. The viewer makes the same mistake, misdirected to participate rather than witness, to misjudge any version or sequence of events as objective and truthful
Very early on, when massacre survivor Verbal takes Kujan back to when “it all started back in New York six weeks ago…” Keaton is suspicious: “There’s no way they’d line five felons in the same row, no way”. This is a key point but he lets it go and it isn’t recalled until a second heist has proved a set-up and homicidal fiasco, delivering the crew into the hands of calmly menacing British lawyer Kobayashi (Peter Postlethwaite).
He makes them an offer they can’t refuse from the mysterious powerful crime lord Keyser Söze.
Manipulation of expectations on a grand scale is what Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects is all about, and how the power of belief outweighs the power of truth.
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for this immensely clever modern noir that kept most of its actors in the dark about the classic twist ending.
But The Usual Suspects goes beyond just a clever twist because it has an incredibly vibrant cinematic feel and complex characters creating a crime world that is at once unique while also paying tribute to ones before it.
It’s a tapestry of clues, verbal cues, and character traits that involve you every single viewing – even when you’re aware of the surprise ending. No matter what you know going into a viewing of The Usual Suspects the tale itself is as convincing as the first time you heard it.
The Usual Suspects is one of the finest examples of screenwriting from the 1990s and, due to Bryan Singer’s tactful direction, it became an instant cult classic.
Benicio del Toro
Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint
Detective Dave Kujan
FBI Agent Jack Baer
Sergeant Jeff Rabin