#ScreenThoughts: Competing Narratives, Red Herrings, and the Devil’s Advocate in Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

[This article contains major spoilers — turn away if you’ve not yet watched it!]

The Usual Suspects is one of my favourite films, OF ALL TIME. I can never pick an ultimate favourite, but I do have a list of ultimate faves. I had to do a film review for a film class and thought, hmm no harm sharing it here.

Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) is a masterful American neo-noir crime thriller film that confuses as much as it satisfies. The film opens with a scene that takes place “last night”: a heist-gone-wrong in San Pedro Bay leaves one-fifth of the criminal group member, Dean Keaton, at the hands of an ominous figure “Keyser Söze” – a seemingly omnipotent, crime lord and mastermind whose identity remains a mystery for most of the film. Flashforward, palsied and crippled con artist Roger “Verbal” Kint testifies as a witness to the events that took place in San Pedro Bay.

The film revolves around five criminal suspects (Dean Keaton, Michael McManus, Fred Fenster, Todd Hockey, and Verbal Kint) of a truck-hijacking. As revenge, they gang up in a heist to expose corrupt cops in the New York Police Department (NYPD). Unbeknownst to them, Söze has them all wrapped under his finger; orchestrating their arrest since the beginning in hopes to punish them from their past acts of theft against him. Söze threatens them with one final heist in exchange for their freedom – all die except Kint and a Hungarian mobster, Arkosh Kovash. Kint is taken into questioning by Agent Dave Kujan.

The characterization of Söze is almost folkloric in some sense – he is a greatly-feared, unformidable crime lord capable of murdering his entire family to assert his prowess. Our knowledge of him is based on pure hearsay from Kint’s verbal account with Agent Kujan, often referring to Söze as “the Devil”. One of the film’s most famous lines is uttered by Kint: “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This then anchors the central thematic question: who IS Keyser Söze and is he real? Singer reveals at the end that Kint’s entire account was a clever fabrication based on Kujan’s office noticeboard. Söze’s alleged “lawyer” and right-hand-man Kobayashi was simply the name of the coffee cup manufacturer Kint and Kujan used; the drug lord “Redfoot” was the name of a criminal suspect printed on the noticeboard. In the final sequence when Kint is acquitted, the close up of his crippled walk becomes a revelatory, pivoting moment: Kint walks normally and his left (supposedly palsied) hand opens up to light up a cigarette, an action mimicking Söze’s figure at the beginning of the film at San Pedro Bay. Kint then enters a car with “Kobayashi”; at the same time, the fax machine prints a drawing based on Kovash’s description of Söze that perfectly resembles Kint. It is here we learn that Söze was Verbal Kint all along.

The linearity of the film’s narrative oscillates between Kint’s past memories and the present-day questioning with Agent Kujan. While the narrative may seem disorienting at first, Singer drops a great deal of red herrings. The opening scene is already a clever work of misdirection, it reveals only as much as Singer wants us to know – that a mysterious figure shot Keaton. In the opening scene, a defeated Keaton lights up a cigarette and discards it into a path of fuel, igniting an explosion on the bay. The camera catches a close-up on the ignited path of fuel, only for it to be diffused by a stream water dripping off-frame above. The camera then pans up to reveal the figure of Söze. Though Söze’s face is never revealed, the mid-shot of his figure-behaviour lighting a cigarette reveals that Söze is left-handed. Söze aims the gun at Keaton and a gunshot is heard – this particular cinematographic detail later becomes an important alibi for Kint-as-Söze’s account. Keaton is shot, but Singer does not show it, we can only infer from the gunshot. Kint’s account to Agent Kujan is similar, the former is sure Keaton is dead despite not seeing Söze shoot Keaton. As the gunshot is fired in this scene, the camera cuts to establishing shots of the ship, finally fixating on a nearby hideout made of crates and ropes. The camera zooms in slowly and the frame is superimposed with Kint’s face, hinting that he was a witness of Keaton’s death.

The opening scene directs us towards Kint’s innocence; however, Singer makes sure to leave a path of breadcrumbs to snippets of truth. The film is dominated with “Verbal” Kint’s narrative voice via his verbal accounts while “Söze” is also Turkish for “talk too much”. Kint’s behaviour in the criminal group is, however, different from his talkative self in Kujan’s office. The red herrings are everywhere: from Kint’s characterization to the non-linear narrative.

The screenplay sheds a new understanding of perspectivism and reality, the cinematography then manifests and reflects shifting realities and perspectives to disorientate viewers into believing one narrative before shocking them with the truth. It is less compelling realize that Verbal Kint was Keyser Söze all along, than the fact that Verbal Kint was a character created by Söze to orchestrate his grand scheme. Söze-as-Kint was indeed playing the devil’s advocate all along, stalling time and tricking Agent Kujan to believe that Keaton was the real Keyser Söze. The Usual Suspects is all about the smarts – who outsmarts whom. It is clear by the end that Söze-as-Kint has outsmarted everyone else at the NYPD – but what about us, the viewers?

The Usual Suspects destabilizes reality by depicting two contrasting narratives and leads the audience into a mousetrap where neither conclusions are expected. What is so beguiling is that Singer also plays devil’s advocate in making us believe in a single narrative up until the final minutes, leaving us in complete shock that is remarkably satisfying. Just when we are tricked into accepting that Keaton is Söze, he isn’t, and we are left feeling duped when the narrative we were so immersed in is merely figment of Kint’s imagination. Perhaps this explains why the film had mixed reviews; the plot-twist shocks the duped viewer as much as it satisfies those who were left in amazement by Kint’s clever scheme. And we, like Agent Kujan, have been cleverly led into that same trap with Singer’s red herrings.

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