Five villains in New York are rounded up by police in an unconventional manner that worries them. After release, they get together for a spot of revenge, but someone else is controlling events.
The Usual Suspects arrived wearing a tag that read "This year's Reservoir Dogs" but rapidly asserted its own identity and reputation. That was appropriate, since the core of this cracking cinematic confidence trick concerns the identification of a criminal mastermind and archfiend of spectacularly evil repute: who is Keyser Soze? The only real similarity between Suspects and Dogs is that five criminals are brought together to pull off a job snatching jewels. And there are shoot-'em-ups.
In the event, The Usual Suspects was so different from any other thriller of the 90s that cultdom beckoned instantly. With its mind-bogglingly convoluted plotting, Bryan Singer's confident, moody, stylish direction and the macho repartee ("Want a buckshot shampoo, chubby?"), this is an intrigue you love at first sight — unless you are infuriated by its being so very smugly clever and twisting and full of tricks. The greatest trick the filmmakers pulled was convincing audiences they had to see the film again, immediately. The illusion is that repeated viewing can unravel the mystery to complete satisfaction. The disillusion is that no matter how many times you see it, it doesn't make much more sense. The final shock twist revelation, a staggering blow to any and all expectations, makes the preceding 100 minutes even more unfathomable a tangled web of deceptions if you try to reason it out. It is more enjoyable not to try too hard.
Just accept that screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who won the Oscar, and Singer are a pair of smarty-pants, and enjoy the rollercoaster ride they engineered with such evident glee. To criticise them severely for being too clever is harsh, since successfully conning generally savvy, seen-it-all audiences is a rare feat. Terrific, enthralling viewing experiences are not necessarily neat and tidy; remember that no one, including novelist Raymond Chandler and his screen adapter William Faulkner, could ever remember or work out who the heck was supposed to have killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep (1946).
Instead of being deceptively simple, this is deceptively complex. 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 was involved with the crime for which they have been arrested: supposedly. The chance meeting, however, inspires them to pool their talents for a job. As befits a film premise inspired by an idea McQuarrie got (while standing in a cinema queue!) for the poster image (five guys in a line-up), everything hinges on this introductory gathering of the men. "You don't put guys like that into a room together. Who knows what can happen?" Indeed.
Dean Keaton (Byrne) is an ex-cop, ex-con with a heavy rep 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 (Baldwin in his best role) is a "top-notch entry man" and one hell of a shot. When later he lines up seven targets in his rifle sighting he scoffs, "Oswald was a fag". Fenster (Puerto Rican hunk Benicio Del Toro affecting a hilariously incomprehensible, mush-mouthed speech pattern) is his weirdo partner. Todd Hockney (Pollak) is "good with explosives". And Verbal "Roger really, people say I talk too much" Kint (Spacey, seizing his first Oscar and vaulting to hottest character actor pre-eminence with this display) is "a short con operator" and the loquacious cripple whose narrative is the thread to which we are directed to cling on to.
A hip, urban Rashomon (1950) with staccato bursts of violent, beautifully choreographed action, the film opens in "San Pedro, California — last night" on a scene of carnage in which a mystery man in a suit executes Keaton. This "objective" sequence will recur, revised, as Verbal's account and, reworked again, as the scene imagined by his dogged interrogator, Federal agent Dave Kujan (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 profanely fretting crew into the hands of calmly menacing "Limey" lawyer Kobayashi (Postlethwaite brazening out a transparently phoney moniker if ever there was one). He makes them an offer they can't refuse from the mysterious Mr. Soze. Singer delights in wizard sleights-of-hand, like camera dissolves into a swirling cup of coffee and a thrilling elevator shaft assassination that make one almost utterly forgetful of loose ends (if Soze's pathologically elaborate charade had the stated objective it's failed because that burn victim babbling in Hungarian in Intensive Care can supposedly identify him).
The considerable contribution of John Ottman, performing the unusual double of deftly editing labyrinthine puzzle scenes and composing the brooding score, shouldn't be underestimated either. The ultimate accolade is that one can't say the film "doesn't; hold up" on seeing it again, and again. It doesn't add up, it doesn't hold true, but it remains a madly captivating bafflement.
Brilliant up to the very last, brilliant, twist.