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The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

1995. Directed by Bryan Singer. With Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri


I know The Usual Suspects is a self-referential movie because its star, Kevin Spacey, told me so. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Spacey said something like "Here's the answer to the question 'Who is Keyser Soze?'. Keyser Soze is Bryan Singer," the director of the film.

There you have it: the arch criminal, the master of disguise, the behind-the-scenes conniver, the story-spinner who's always a step ahead of everyone else, the creator of something out of nothing—who else but the filmmaker himself?

We've talked before (see House of Games) about how the elaborate-criminal-plot scenario parallels the filmmaking process. Look at the talents Keyser Soze brings to bear. He's a great actor (rivalling Olivier in the Richard III department) and a resourceful scenarist. If the flashbacks we see accurately reflect the story he is telling, he is brilliant at "staging" action sequences, creating vivid characters, knowing exactly what information to reveal and what to withhold as his narrative unfolds. If we consider Keyser Soze responsible for spinning the tale that makes up the bulk of the movie, we see that he and Bryan Singer, if not one and the same, certainly have overlapping job descriptions.

The arch criminal as arch dissembler is a staple of detective fiction. But this conceit gets really intriguing in movies, where we spectators misread his intentions as gullibly as do the on-screen dupes. It's a great example of the movies' ability to not just tell and show, but to extend the experience to include us, so that we actually experience things, not vicariously but directly.

Movie-watching depends almost entirely on outward appearances— physiognomy, which is how we keep track of the personnel from scene to scene as well deciding how we feel about them; a highly-evolved set of acting conventions that denote sincerity or duplicity; and ways of shooting, lighting and editing that we have learned to "read" for narrative and emotional content. Visuals constitute a movie's reality, and only when an "outlaw" filmmaker subverts them do we realize how arbitrary they are.

We work hard (though we've gotten so good at it we no longer notice the effort) convincing ourselves that what we see in movies is really happening, although we also know that of course none of it is really really happening. We interpolate complex actions and relationships from a few snips of film. So it's disconcerting to find how seriously misplaced that effort can be. Our eagerness to cooperate with the filmmaker can be used against us.

This is, obviously, a game that can't be played too often without destroying narrative cinema. It's somewhat nihilistic, and I'm not really comfortable with Singer, a first-time (?) filmmaker, resorting to such extremes for the sake of thrills and chills. He doesn't seem to have earned the right, somehow, however many courses in post-modernism he's taken.

Unreliable-narrator fictions are rich stuff and kind of hard to digest, especially in movies, when that unreliable narration gets concretized into visual images (i.e., flashbacks that lie). Like time-travel stories, they don't bear a great deal of thinking about; you're sure to run into a contradiction somewhere, if not an outright dishonesty. But both genres are so intriguing that people are willing to cut some slack.

I don't think The Usual Suspects comes close to House of Games, the hoax film par excellence and a very evocative work of art. Bryan Singer's movie is less a hoax than a magic trick, really, a tour de force of sleight-of hand, an exercise in misdirection. For the grand finale, it makes itself (at least, a good portion of itself) vanish before our eyes. A giddy thrill, and one that raises more provocative questions about movie narration than it perhaps set out to.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein