Who is Keyser Soze?
This is the question that constantly asked in the 1995 neo-noir mystery thriller The Usual Suspects. Directed by Bryan Singer who brought us X-Men (2000) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) with a script from Christopher McQuarrie, the film stars an ensemble cast consisting of Kevin Spacey (House of Cards, American Beauty), Stephen Baldwin (Bio-Dome), Gabriel Bryne (Jindabyne, Wah-wah), Benicio del Toro (Sicario, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and Kevin Pollack (Ricochet) with Chazz Palminteri (A Bronx Tale).
Told through the interview of one Verbal Kint (Spacey), a conman with cerebral palsy, The Usual Suspects follows a group of five men who are called by the police to participate in a line-up for the hijacking of a truck. When they are later released, they work together to pull a heist as revenge on the NYPD that result in the men netting millions of dollars in emeralds and getting over fifty cops arrested. Their criminal antics eventually get them the attention of the infamous Keyser Soze, a mythic crime lord who hires them to pull off a multi-million dollar heist that ends with an explosion in San Pedro Harbor, most of the group dead, and Verbal Kint being interviewed by the FBI.
The Usual Suspects is a film that relies on its final twist to take it from good to cult classic. When talking about the topic of movie twists, it’s difficult not to even acknowledge the impact this film’s twist has had on popular culture. And although the twist itself, as I will explain later, leaves a worrying number of plot holes and questions, it’s hard to undermine the film’s brilliantly written and delivered dialogue that owes itself to award-winning scribe McQuarrie and the acclaimed ensemble cast. The hilarious banter between the main five characters is truly memorable, especially the now-iconic lineup scene that was famously edited together using multiple would-be-outtakes and improvised shots.
Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint is an absolute spectacle. This is the role to took him from a character actor to a Hollywood A-lister on the same year he landed his role on Se7en (1995), no less. As an actor known for being unconventional and unpredictable, he reportedly filed down the soles of his shoes to help give him a convincing limp and super glued his hands to restrict their movement. His skills are on full-display as he shifts from quirky to cunning to spineless to utterly hair-raising. His calm, often charming voice narrates the entirety of movie as he convinces the Feds of the existence of Keyser Soze.
Gabriel Bryne is reportedly the reason why production was forced to finish the film in only 35 days and why they had to shoot in LA. But all his demands were worth it. Bryne plays Dean Keaton, a corrupt ex-cop who wants to go straight after meeting the woman of his dreams. But when his past won’t leave well enough alone, he finds himself involved in and even heading the heist the five men pull off to take vengeance on the NYPD. His experience as an actor and the apparent experience and notoriety of his character go hand-in-hand in his on-screen portrayal of Keaton. In the film, he perfectly plays the part of a man who is altogether conflicted about his actions as he goes back-and-forth from genuinely kind-hearted to cynically detached.
Benicio del Toro’s character didn’t have a lasting impact on the story. Fenster (del Toro) was only really there to demonstrate Soze’s power. But that didn’t stop Del Toro from making the role undeniably unforgettable. Fenster’s devil-may-care attitude, mumbled speech pattern, and overall charisma made a lasting impact on what would’ve been a vanilla tough guy role.
ANALYSIS AND CRITICISMS
SPOILERS FOR THE FILM START HERE
As I mentioned before, The Usual Suspects, for all its cult acclaim, leaves some critical questions that it didn’t care to answer. At the end of the film, Spacey’s Verbal Kint is revealed to be the mythical Keyser Soze, who manipulated the events and characters of the film in order to kill the one man who could identify him, Arturo Marquez, the prisoner Soze shot on the ship. This was a task that Soze deemed necessary to deal with himself. But in the process of securing his identity, he revealed his identity to everyone in the FBI.
The reveal with Kint receiving the same gold watch and gold lighter that we saw Soze wear and use in the opening, as well as his seamless shift from a limp to a confident saunter, was a undoubtedly epic. But it’s hard to believe that a criminal genius like Keyser Soze would risk identification for one man. A man he could very well have someone kill instead. It’s even more far-fetched to fathom any logical reason why he would stick around to be interviewed by the FBI when it was clearly stated he had already gotten an immunity deal from the DA. He had no reason to stick around, other than to stroke his ego. The FBI couldn’t forcibly hold him. They tell him themselves that he could leave whenever he wanted, but instead he risks identification even more by lazily drinking bad coffee and chatting about that time all his mates died in fire.
Moreover, Kint’s narration seems almost omniscient. He knew things like the conversation Keaton and his girlfriend Atty. Finneran (Suzy Amis) had at the steps of the police station; a conversation he could never have known about since he was across the street enjoying a ciggy. His knowledge of these things add to the clues that he was blowing smoke out of his crack the whole time he was talking to the Feds, and the Feds didn’t even realize this obvious fact.
It would’ve made much more sense of Keaton to have been Soze, as Agent Dave Kujan (Palminteri) hypothesized near the end of the film. Keaton had the motive and the resources to pull off being Soze. Him murdering his girlfriend would even draw parallels with Soze’s alleged origin story, as told by Kint. Plus, Kujan’s theory about how he merely faked his death at the end with Kint as his unwitting witness brilliantly plays to the cunning and genius of Soze as a character. What better way would there be to disappear than to fake your own death?
I personally would’ve preferred it if Keaton truly was Soze. And so you all can still have your second twist, let’s still have Kint perform his slow shift from hobble to stride but when he gets into the car have Keaton pick him up, not Kobayashi. I imagine that Keaton would’ve planned to have that last Hungarian mobster survive to have Kint be indentified as Soze and not Keaton, leaving the real Keyser Soze free to disappear once more. Because, as author Charles Baudelaire once wrote in his book The Generous Gambler (1864), “the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
Does a good twist a good movie make? When a film relies too much on its twist without the regard for any thing else like good dialogue, acting, and cinematography, then no, a good twist won’t save a mediocre movie. At best, it simply entertains you once and the only way it could entertain you a second time is if you forced a friend to watch it as you bask in the glory of seeing them vindicate your feelings for the film’s ending. And that is, in my opinion, a shallow way to enjoy a film.
That being said, in spite of all my problems with this film’s final reveal, The Usual Suspects had so much more than its twist. It had a stellar cast whose performances gave us some of the most memorable characters in film history. It had an amazing script with a premise that was both captivating and original. It had solid visuals and locations that draws inspiration from the crime-drama classics that inspired this neo-noir thriller. The Usual Suspects entertained me and it will continue to entertain me, no matter how many times I watch it. Not because of its twist, but because of the irresistibly appealing mystery that its holds. Sometimes, the questions are far more interesting than the answers.