The Usual Suspects
A Film by Brian Singer
Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie
It may be that the nineties will be remembered in film history as the decade when genre movies made their big come back. If this comes to pass, The Usual Suspects will undoubtedly be cited as clear proof.
This unpretentious, relatively inexpensive movie puts the thrill back in the thriller, generating real suspense and excitement, tension and anxiety, rather than just bathing the screen in blood and smoke while waiting for the predictable heroic denouement. None of the recent big-budget "action-adventure" films or so-called "thrillers" has anywhere near the polish of this modest production.
Hitchcock is often invoked in film publicity, usually in ill advised self-compliment, but in the case of this film the comparison is surely a fair one. Director Bryan Singer and Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie have produced a tight, well-told story, filmed sparely and with an economy of style that is more elegant for being less embellished.
The film leans most heavily on character. It is the unfolding of individual characters, and the tension created between what we are being told and what we see on the screen, that creates much of the suspense in the film. This is not the obvious suspense of plot devices, but the subtle, and much more deeply affecting tension created by the indefinable sense that things and people are somehow not what they seem.
The script is fine. The dialogue is effective and believable, with distinct, consistent voices for each character. In a movie whose strength is in part dependent on a clever plot, McQuarrie never stumbles into the trap of letting characters become mere plot devices.
The only exception is the virtually undeveloped female lawyer Edie Finnerman,(Suzy Amis). Hers is the thankless task of serving as nothing more than a visual reference for motivation of a major character. In a screenplay as well-drawn and effective as this, however, one such peccadillo can easily be forgiven.
The ensemble of actors must share a great deal of the credit for the success of this film. There is the potential for this film to fall into a sort of Dirty Dozen or Seven Samurai pattern - quirkily eccentric characters drawn together by some larger plan, who are often reduced to stereotypes. It is the intelligence of the script and its interpretation by the director and his actors that keeps that from happening.
When the hair-trigger MacManus (Stephen Baldwin) is taunted by a petty criminal, and restrained by the level-headed Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), there is a moment of sympathy between the two men about sometimes having to accept humiliation, that is surprisingly tender. When MacManus and the almost-equally volatile Hockney (Kevin Pollak) have a confrontation over how to get the loot from a robbery to the fence, there is a sudden verbal and physical confrontation that is subtly sexual and evokes the perverse sex/power confrontations of their prison-yard backgrounds as no amount of exposition could.
Although they are only flashes, thrown away rather than heavy-handedly belabored, such moments are what take character development beyond predictable formulas, and make story-telling interesting. Byrne, Baldwin, Pollak and Kevin Spacey make the "gang" come to life. The only weak link is Benecio del Toro, as Fenster, who seems to have taken an indefinable and somewhat unintelligible accent as his main character bit. It doesn't work, especially in contrast to the relative complexity of the rest of the ensemble, but fortunately its not jarring, and he has relatively little to do.
Spacey, as 'Verbal' Kint, has the most difficult job. He is the narrator from whose point of view the extended flashbacks that make up most of the film are seen and also a character in those flashbacks. The subtle inconsistencies in his performance are one of the strongest contributing factors to the sense of disorientation that fuels the suspense.
His work against Chazz Palminteri, who plays a Customs Agent interrogating him, creates another level of uncertainty. There is no trickery, no gimmick here, just good acting that is as confusing and misleading as it needs to be.
Palminteri is a perfect foil, not stupid, but blinded by his own arrogance and cleverness. He is convincing in his stubborn, dogged need to make an orderly story from the confusing and conflicting accounts presented to him. The audience can hardly escape the same need, and the same self-deception.
The production values are fairly high. The minimal budget is never really apparent, except in a few transitional edits, where rough jumps and non-sequitur establishing shots indicate a lack of the raw footage that a larger budget would have provided. Within scenes the editing is solid and effective. My one peeve here is with the violence and special effects. I don't have to be shown bits of brain and blood clinging to a wall to know someone has met a violent end. I find that kind of excess exploitative and distracting.
Camera-work is likewise never a problem. There is an absence of the dizzying gimmicks of turntable, circular or spiral dolly shots, and soaring crane shots that try to substitute for the lack of content in, for instance, Tarrantino's films. The camera follows the action, not rigidly or slavishly, but simply, directly, like the short, declarative sentences that make some Hemingway short stories so effective.
Lighting and camera combine to create an appropriately shadowy underworld as a background for the action. There are many silhouette shots, strong cuts of harsh, angled light, many of the conventions of "noir" cinema, but handled with an ease and casualness that prevent their becoming stylized or campy.
Much of the film has an indistinct look - not the detail overload of many big-budget films nor the gritty minimalism of some "art" projects, but an appropriately formless netherworld. The Detective's office, by contrast, which is the center of action in the film's "present," is highly and accurately detailed, but not to the point of distraction.
This is only the second film from this director and writer. They have taken the "noir" genre and transformed into something new and original. If they continue to work together as well as they have here, movie-goers will have a lot to look forward to.
That's my take on it. What's yours?