By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
The mid-90s were the heyday of indie filmmaker and studio cooperation, producing classics from Clerks to Reservoir Dogs, films that would be much more difficult to make, or at least get widely distributed, these days. The Usual Suspects falls squarely in this category- only the second film for young director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie after their well-received but low-profile Public Access. That film caught Kevin Spacey’s eye, however, and after a fascinating, drawn-out process of getting the gang together, Singer and McQuarrie had their $5.5 million to shoot their film.
The Usual Suspects is about a gunfight at a shipyard that ends up with all of the principals dead, except for one badly burned Hungarian and an innocuous cripple, Verbal Kint, who recounts to the police how five criminals met during a police lineup, putting them on the path to this fateful day.
He looks like a trustworthy sort
The star of this film is the twist, which I won’t reveal here for the benefit of those three people out there who are waiting for this and The Sixth Sense to come out in 3-D Holovision before pulling the trigger. Anyway, McQuarrie and Singer cleverly construct a plot that becomes something else entirely once you get to the end, and makes you want to start the film over again immediately and watch it all again. No film has had me hit the Imdb message boards quite as hard as this one, excepting perhaps the first time I saw No Country for Old Men.
To produce this incredibly convoluted, yet eminently rewatchable flick, everything in the production had to be firing on all cylinders, and it was. Singer’s direction reminded me of the muscular, character-based action flicks of the 70s, a gritty style he hasn’t really topped since. McQuarrie’s writing and John Ottman’s editing combine to keep you guessing, and Ottman also contributed a excellent, tension-building score (how often do you see that job description, film editor/composer?)
Unless you’re Shane Carruth, I guess, although is title would be Everything-er
It’s the acting that really sells the film, though, and Spacey’s weasel-y, chameleonic performance justly landed him a Supporting Actor Oscar. The rest of the gang doesn’t get nearly the showcase, outside of arguably Gabriel Byrne, who’s his usual professional best and the short but stand-out job done by Benicio Del Toro as wise-cracking Fenster sporting an accent unlike anything I’ve seen him put on. The do have excellent chemistry together, however, which brings me to my favorite Usual Suspects story.
First, watch this scene
Obviously, they’re cracking up and having a good time, right? Well, apparently this scene as written was supposed to be played straight, and the way the actors were behaving themselves was starting to piss the crew off, but they couldn’t help themselves because… Del Toro wouldn’t stop ripping foul farts the whole time. Even Byrne, who has the reputation as a hardass on the set, can’t keep his face straight. Now, that’s chemistry, perhaps in a couple of contexts.
Oh, and final props to the unfortunately late Pete Postlethwait, who conveys the perfect steely menace in this even though I still have no clue what ethnicity his Japanese-named, Paki-Scottish-accented character was supposed to be.
Honestly, the other suspects outside of Byrne are pretty underutilized, which might be understandable with Kevin Pollack delivering as one note a character as they come and Stephen Baldwin, well, being Stephen Baldwin. There’s a reason he hasn’t been in a movie you’ve heard of since 2007 (and that was Fred Claus).
It’s that horrible shortbeard’s fault, isn’t it?
The Usual Suspects is a mid-90s classic that ranks up there with the rest of the best of a very fruitful period in filmmaking history.
Take a Drink: for the bodycount
Take a Drink: every time someone smokes or uses matches or a lighter
Take a Drink: whenever the name “Keyser Soze” is uttered
Take a Drink: every time you spot a beloved character actor (Agent Coulson! Gus Fring!)
The quickest person to name that actor Doesn’t Have to Drink
Take a Drink: every time the gang is together in the same room
Do a Shot: if you can guess where the hell Kobayashi is supposed to be from