The Usual Suspects, or Are They
By Miranda Avalos
Every Christmas my moms’ side of the family would get together in Mexico. While the dads would be drinking beer outside and the moms cooking and chatting in the kitchen, in the afternoon of Christmas day, the older cousins would choose a good movie for all of the cousins to watch. We would fit five people on a three-person couch, four on the leather ottoman with their heads on the knees of those on the couch and another three on the matching leather chair. Once we all found a spot, we would start the movie and either watch it in English with Spanish subtitles or in Spanish with English Subtitles. As I recall, the older cousins chose to watch The Usual Suspects in English, because they knew the Spanish voiceover would not do this movie justice and to experience this movie fully we needed to watch the movie in the original language. Out of all the movies we watched together through the year, this movie was the one that stood out to me the most and is one of my absolute favorite movies that I always recommend to others. Being that I am part of the generation that has access to several movie/TV show streaming platforms and have watched thousands of movies, for The Usual Suspects to still be one of my favorite movies is saying something.
The Usual Suspects is defined as a thriller/mystery and what is more satisfying than watching this type of movie and finally seeing the plot twist revealed? I would say nothing is more satisfying than guessing the plot ending and being right or even being completely wrong but then being fully surprised and shocked by the movie’s ending. This movie is very important in the film industry due to a new category of movies it influenced. Though it did lack diversity in every aspect – creating discrimination – this movie still managed to create several different male characters that are all distinguishable by their actions and lines representing different levels of power. Lastly, one very valuable aspect of this film, is that it provided representation of a disability. Although it was not completely favorable or an accurate representation of cerebral palsy, the actor did receive an Academy Award because of this character he played.
The Usual Suspects took mystery to a whole other level and was said to have created a new genre of movies. This movie may not have been the first but it was definitely the most popular and most notable in Hollywood and as we all know Hollywood is the largest influencer in the film industry (Wikipedia). Seth Friedman, an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Theatre, uses “the term misdirection to describe this set of films because they rely on deception to divert the spectator from prematurely unearthing the secret” (Friedman). In my own words, this movie needs to be decoded twice by viewers, to be able to understand the real truth behind the story. More recent movies that have followed this same style use a variety of visual and audio techniques but back in 1995 the creators of The Usual Suspects relied mostly on literary design such as the plot and a fake disability to hide the real truth of the story.
In this film it was not the cinematic technique that was used to represent differences, it was the characters and how they were portrayed. The most different character, or the odd man, out was the most important character. However, the writers, directors, and producers managed to make this a tool to hide the true villain Keyser Söze in plain sight. The fake disability that was mentioned above came from the character Roger “Verbal” Kint, a supposed thief with cerebral palsy. Verbal was just a facade which for the CP community is a blessing and a curse, in regards to how CP was portrayed by this character. The other characters and viewers were made to think that Verbal was a nobody “on the assumption that no one with CP could be smart and aggressive enough to commit a crime”(Bauer). This was a brilliant way to hide the villain nonetheless, also offensive towards the CP community. The main detective in the movie is Kujan and he states “because you are cripple… because you are stupid”, is the reason Verbal was thought to have been used like a tool by the real criminal mastermind Keaton, who was a smart and able character(McQuarrie). Clearly, the characters and viewers were all wrong, when at the very end of the movie Verbal loses the limp, as he is walking to his getaway car, with no worries in the world of being caught because he had just pulled off the greatest deception. This scene was the big reveal and hint to the viewers that he was actually Keyser Söze and not Keaton. Also, a reason why it was necessary for the actor who portrayed this character to be completely abled.
In the beginning of the movie, the viewers are exposed to the five-man group that are believed to all be the protagonist, but once again this is just the first layer of the story and all five of them are not the main protagonists of the story being told during this movie. First is Keaton who is shown as the intelligent, rich, cop turned businessman, and retired criminal. He is the alpha, the one with the most lines and the most focus from other characters. Also, Keaton is the only one to have a woman in his life, a powerful, smart and beautiful woman. McManus is the crazy man, fearless and his partner in crime is Fenster. Fenster is made to seem more flamboyant, with the way he dresses, his exaggerated accent but not to be confused with the cissy character stereotype because he is a criminal and all criminals are tough. Next is Hockney, the nerd, sarcastic, and does not care about anyone but himself. This is easily observed in the scene when he chooses to go to the money over trying to help his team when everything starts to go wrong at the docks(McQuarrie). Lastly is Verbal the “gimp”, “pretzel man”, quiet in the corner when around the other men, and easily manipulated according to Kujan(McQuarrie). The writers, directors and producers were able to stereotype each of these male characters differently making them each unique and indirectly showing that there was meant to be an order that the viewers should be able to subconsciously recognize due to what our society considers to be more powerful traits. The order was in fact Keaton, McManus, Fenster, Hockney, and then Verbal. Viewers were meant to fall for this because in the end, it was Verbal and not Keaton who was Keyser Söze, the devil himself.
What a great movie most would say but on the other hand, an argument against this great movie would be why were there hardly any female characters? Women have been used as an image of deception all throughout history, yet this movie severely lacked the presence of women. The only female character was the girlfriend of Keaton. Her name was barely said a handful of times and she was treated like an object by every other character. There is a scene where she is telling Keaton “I love you” repeatedly but Keaton does not seem to notice or care, just completely dismisses her(McQuarrie). In addition, she was used as a pawn by Söze and in the end even killed by Söze. If women were given the opportunity to audition for one of the male character roles, there is a good chance they could have pulled off acting just as well as the other protagonist actor. However, they were not given this opportunity and discriminated against because women were not criminal masterminds according to Hollywood back in 1995. Oh how the tables have turned on that idea with all the new Netflix series such as Queen of the South,that have strong female leads portraying Drug Lords.
Looking back at the time this movie was made and produced it was the era of Post-Classical Hollywood and more precisely this movie was during the New Hollywood Era, which was 1982-2006 (Langford). Of course, during the whole era, movies were influenced by WWII, the Cold War, and the several other wars that were happening following these major ones. A recurring theme seen in movies was movies having cultural wars as part of the plot or storyline. This theme is even part of The Usual Suspectsstoryline but more in the background. Everyone knows Keyser Soze is evil and a killer yet what is forgotten is what triggered the monster inside of him. The cause was that the Hungarians threatened him and brought out the monster inside of him. Then in the present day of the movie, Söze pinned the Russians against the Hungarians. Another reason why Söze was so scary is that in his culture revenge is taken very seriously and now his name has become the name of nightmares. His name does not only carry weight in the movie but in real life that name is famous for representing ruthlessness, pain, and death.
Despite the lack of representation of people of color, different genders, and different sexualities, which are in itself DPD issues, this film does represent other DPD issues. What can be taken away from watching this movie is that with every time it is rewatched there is something new to decode, there is something new pointing the viewers to believe the real truth but the acting of Kevin Spacey was so good that it still has the viewers second guessing. Maybe it was not Verbal though maybe it was Kobayashi or even Kujan that is Keyser Söze. Ultimately the writers, directors, and producers did such an excellent job at hiding the truth, with even analyzing the movie to find the difference, discrimination, and power it is impossible to decode everything. The real question remains, who really was Keyser Söze?
Bauer, David. “CP and the Movies: Image Is Everything.” New Mobility,14 Jan. 2017, www.newmobility.com/2002/06/cp-and-the-movies-image-is-everything/.
Friedman, Seth A. “Cloaked Classification: The Misdirection Film and Generic Duplicity.” Journal of Film and Video,vol. 58, no. 4, 2006, pp. 16–28. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20688536. Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.
Langford, Barry. Post-Classical Hollywood: Film Industry, Style and Ideology since 1945, Edinburgh University Press, 2010.ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/lincnbenton-ebooks/detail.action?docID=615832.
McQuarrie, Christopher. The Usual Suspects.Gramercy Pictures, 1995.
“Film industry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Dec. 2020. Web. 8 Dec. 2020.