“I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end… and you’ve got a hit.” — Script Guru Robert McKee, to Charlie Kaufman, in Adaptation.
Never has the “wow them in the end” adage been more beautifully illustrated than in The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie, which hit theaters 25 years ago in 1995. It’s a movie with plenty of flaws but the ultimate trump card: a home run ending that makes everything else fade from memory.
Singer and McQuarrie had worked together once before, on Public Access, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, despite fairly tepid reviews. The two had known each other from childhood — in Princeton Junction, New Jersey — where Singer’s mom and McQuarrie’s dad had run together on an unsuccessful bid for a township committee seat. Singer supposedly met Kevin Spacey at an afterparty for Public Access, while the idea for The Usual Suspects came to McQuarrie, Finding Forrester style, title first.
While waiting in line for a screening at the festival, a friend asked McQuarrie about his next script. “I said, ‘I was reading this article in Spy magazine called “The Usual Suspects.” I thought that would be a great title.'” As for the story, McQuarrie said, “I guess it’s about…the usual suspects. The guys who always get arrested for some type of crime. I figure they meet in a police lineup and decide to work together. I told Bryan. He forgot about it a few seconds later.”
That this half-assed, barely formed kernel of an idea would go on to win two Oscars (one for lead actor Kevin Spacey and one for writer Chris McQuarrie) and be recognized by the WGA in 2017 as the 35th greatest screenplay of all time, is a perfect illustration of the adage “writing is rewriting.”
Of course, with its director and lead actor becoming varying degrees of unemployable in recent years (Spacey hasn’t been in anything since 2018) — not to mention one of its stars, Stephen Baldwin turning full MAGA grifter (as well as becoming Justin Bieber’s father in law) — The Usual Suspects feels a little like a time capsule of the recently canceled. We could spend all day imagining what it might take to get a movie where Kevin Spacey plays a disabled, openly weak con man greenlit today, but there’s a limit to how much you can judge an older movie by modern standards of political correctness before it gets dull.
In the first two acts of The Usual Suspects, it’s easy to wonder if this perennial fixture of best-of lists is overrated. Christopher McQuarrie was 27 when it came out, Singer 29. In certain ways, their youth shows. While Singer had gone off to film school, McQuarrie hitchhiked in Australia, worked first at his uncle’s detective agency and later as a movie theater security guard, and The Usual Suspect feels like McQuarrie tried to cram every oddball character and weird story he came across in the course of his peripatetic young adulthood into this one, impossibly dense script.
It’s a movie that’s as much of its time as it is of its creator. The dialogue, in particular, is smart-alecky, swear-filled, and slightly smug in that particularly early-90s-indie-movie kind of way, like an amalgamation of Tarantino, Shane Black, and David Mamet. Creativity clearly counted for more than naturalism, though it maybe always does. When the police round up the titular usual suspects, to a man, each character has something casual and sneeringly cool to say to his arresting officers.
“Don’t you guys ever sleep? …F*ck you pig.” -McManus
“…Think you brought enough guys?” -Todd Hockney, as he tosses an oily rag directly at the camera
It’s all Shane Black snappy and Steven Soderbergh slick. The cool-guy sarcasm probably suits Kevin Pollak’s character (Todd Hockney) the best, but it extends to virtually every character. They’re all slightly undifferentiated in that way, each in their own way guys who would blow cigarette smoke in your face behind the minimart, a very specific Gen X conception of “cool.” No one flinches at having a gun stuck in their face, no one looks at explosions.
Lots of nineties crime films had that in common. You could draw a straight line through Hockney describing what he’s going to do when he goes to prison (“F*ck your father in the shower and then have a snack?”) to Samuel Jackson’s character in The Long Kiss Goodnight (“Nah, I usually sock ’em in the jaw and yell ‘pop goes the weasel‘”) to pretty much any Samuel Jackson line in Pulp Fiction. Where the Shane Black version is slightly more comic book pulp, McQuarrie’s tough guy swear nuggets tend more towards writerly, and slightly tortured. Think Ryan Philippe growling “shut that c*nt’s mouth or I’ll come over there and f*ck start her head” in The Way Of The Gun (McQuarrie’s follow up to The Usual Suspects).
It doesn’t sound like something someone would actually say, but it sticks in your head all the same. Leather jacket guy masculine was just kind of how dialogue was written in the early ’90s, the same way arch self-referential shouting (with big, bugged-out eyes) is in favor now. You can watch The Usual Suspects, a movie that has exactly one female character (Edie Finneran, the “downtown lawyer” that Gabriel Byrne’s Keaton is “tappin'”) and consists of about 85% gay panic insults (you could make a drinking game out of how often a character derisively refers to a group of men as “ladies”) and see basically what Troy Duffy was attempting and failing with Boondock Saints. “What if there were some dudes who were really cool and also had guns, like a bunch of Andrew Dice Clays in a Ray Chandler novel?”
In a lot of ways, The Usual Suspects is the platonic ideal of the ’90s tough guy neo-noir. It’s far more about the idea of telling a crazy story — a crazy story within a crazy story, really — than it is about any one character growing or changing or learning something about life. The only thing anyone really learns in The Usual Suspects is who Keyser Soze is.
Early on in the film, the characters feel more like “types” than people (as may happen in a heist movie that grew out of the idea of guys meeting in a police lineup). Even if they don’t entirely come together as flesh-and-blood humans, Usual Suspect‘s characters get by on novelty value. In some ways it’s driven by the cosmic synergy of oddball writing and oddball acting. Benicio Del Toro’s rendering of “he flip you, flip you for real,” is unforgettable, even if, upon rewatch, his overplucked hustler “Fenster” doesn’t contribute all that much to the plot.
Later in the film, we meet “Kobayashi,” a character with a Japanese name, played by a Lancastrian actor, using an accent that could best be described as “vaguely Indian.” It’s a character that probably only someone with a face like Peter Postlethwaite’s could’ve pulled off.
McQuarrie throws so much at you — the lineup, the ring of corrupt cops the gang torches in “New York’s Finest Taxi Service,” the downtown lawyer, the fence named “Redfoot,” another heist, a massive drug deal at a harbor, two drug gangs, and finally, Keyser Soze — that you eventually just submit, letting the facts wash over you without trying to make the connections. Usual Suspects‘ narrative is so convoluted I can’t even follow the Wikipedia synopsis. You think, I must’ve been tricked the first time I watched this. There’s no way this comes together the way I remember. How many goddamn Macguffins does this movie have?
Upon my latest rewatch, I was again convinced, right up until the final five minutes, that The Usual Suspects couldn’t possibly hang together. That it was all an elaborate parlor trick, that we force it to make sense to keep from feeling dumb for not getting it. And then, once again, Chazz Palmintieri and Giancarlo Esposito (the future Gus Fring), with an assist from Dan Hedaya, hit a last-second buzzer-beater, meticulously explaining away every conceivable plot hole, as Kevin Spacey un-palsies his hand and foot, lighting up another cool-guy cigarette as the coup de gras. Hot damn, they really did pull it off, how about that.
In some ways, The Usual Suspects feels even older than 25. Despite the very nineties style of dialogue, as a narrative it seems to come from the classic, mid-century school of manufactured suspense, where revealing information in drips and delayed gratification were everything. Films rarely trust audiences to hang in there for the big ending reveal anymore. And as a viewer, I’m less accustomed to having to wait for it or being able to trust that my patience will be rewarded.
In The Usual Suspects, you can see the essential blueprint for every Christopher Nolan movie that was to come: keep the audience on their heels with endless subterfuge until you can knock them out with the final reveal. Nolan’s low-budget debut, Following, would debut three years later, and he would go on to (arguably) innovate more than Bryan Singer as a visual storyteller. As a writer he still has a lot in common with McQuarrie (the other Chris). Steven Soderbergh had already made his debut, Sex, Lies, And Videotape, in 1989, and went on to make his masterpiece, Out of Sight, in 1998, but his Oceans movies seem to borrow liberally from The Usual Suspects’ snappy vignettes.
To note the obvious, that “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” is a bittersweet observation. For five or 10 years it felt like every aspiring auteur in Hollywood was trying to make The Usual Suspects, the same way every comedian in the late aughts and early 20-teens was trying to be Louis CK. Whether it was sex scandals or just changing tastes that brought them down (with all due respect to McQuarrie, who never had a sex scandal and seems to have successfully evolved), these were both styles that were widely imitated and rarely pulled off, a hyperspecific flavor of white male cool. 25 years later, I’m equally glad that The Usual Suspects exists and that fewer filmmakers are trying to rip it off.