Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bryan Singer retrospective - THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1994)

Bryan Singer's latest movie - VALKYRIE - will be released in the UK next month - an opportune moment to review his previous movies. I haven't written about any of Singer's movies before despite the fact that his 1994 flick THE USUAL SUSPECTS is one of my favourite films of all time and one of the few movies that I own on DVD. I love THE USUAL SUSPECTS because it proved that it was still possible to make slippery, haunting thrillers in the manner of those 1940s classics - full of real men, complex heists, bent cops and ambiguous loyalties. The script was intelligent and gripping, with just enough allusion to the supernatural to be frightening but still credible. The visual style was bold and captivating. The acting was superlative - and better still for introducing us to the soon to be iconic Benicio del Toro and reintroducing us to great character actors such as Gabriel Byrne and Chazz Palminteri. What was even more astounding was that the movie had been directed and written by a team of relative unknowns - Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie - collaborating again on their second flick - both still in their twenties.

The movie grips you from the opening scene - a harbour at night - a match flares showing the face of a battered, dying man, who voices enmity for a man with the unusual name of Keyser. The gasoline barrels on the ship catch fire - dramatically silhouetted against the sky. The central mystery has been established with admirable efficiency and style - who is Keyser - and what crime has been perpetrated here?

We cut to contemporary New York. "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) begins his voice-over. He will be our narrator - fashioning our understanding of this tale. But we know he's a con-man - and that colours our belief in what he is saying. We see our group of suspects rounded up by New York's finest and interrogated, but it's clear they're innocent of this particular crime. Nonetheless, the personalities and the pecking order are established. Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) - the man we have just seen dying - is the alpha male. He's suave - he's was evidently trying to charm himself into a new legitimate life as a restauranteur. Trying and failing in the great tradition of movie mafiosi. Next comes Kevin Pollack as Todd Hockney - foul-mouthed, angry, clearly good at what he does and under no illusions about it. Then we have Stephen Baldwin - an unpredictable live-wire - as Michael McManus, clearly a partner in many senses of Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro stealing every scene with his unintelligible accent.) All four have professional respect for each other as crims. Verbal Kint is the patsy - frightened - out of his depth.

Again, with remarkable economy we switch to intensive care where a cop is interrogating the survivor of the explosion on the ship - he's petrified and screams the name "Keyser Soze" again and again in heavily accented English. It's a truly frightening moment thanks partly to the exotic name, partly to the bandages. Either way, the film-makers have established a true sense of urgency and that the stakes are high.

And now we're into the meat of the story and we're hooked. Chazz Palminteri plays cocksure Officer Kujan, throwing every form of intimidation at Verbal Kint as he tries to work out what went down. In flashbacks, Kint tells his side of the story. It's a battle of wits - but three-way - between Kujon, Kint and the audience. Kint's telling us a tale of a heist gone wrong, a mysterious man named Kobayashi, murder and deceit. He's mixing it up with seemingly absurd details about barber shops quartets and suchlike. And he alternates between fear and arrogance. It's a bravura performance from Kevin Spacey, who won an Oscar for it.

Verbal: Where's your head, Agent Kujan? Where do you think the pressure's coming from? Keyser Soze - or whatever you want to call him - knows where I am right now. He's got the front burner under' your ass to let me go so he can scoop me up ten minutes later. Immunity was just to deal with you assholes. I got a whole new problem when I post bail.
Dave Kujan: So why play into his hands? We can protect you.
Verbal: Gee, thanks, Dave. Bang-up job so far. Extortion, coercion. You'll pardon me if I ask you to kiss my pucker. The same fuckers that rounded us up and sank us into this mess are telling me They'll bail me out? Fuck you. You think you can catch Keyser Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting fingered and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything, it will be to get rid of me. After that, my guess is you'll never hear from him again.

Kint's story ends without resolution for Kujan, who later discovers the true identity of Keyser Soze - surely one of the best twist endings in cinema. The brilliance of the script is that once you know the ending you can see the clues - it's not just willfully obscure. Moreover, my enjoyment of the film has not been diminished by knowing the twist at the end. Rather, every time I watch it I marvel at the ingenuity of the plot and I revel in the genuine feeling of menace and peril. To that end, THE USUAL SUSPECTS is the perfect marriage of style and substance. The movie looks great and feels eerie and has a cool ending but underneath all that it has a logical and whip-tight structure and fascinating power relationships - between the members of the gang and between the gang and the rozzers. All in all, a modern classic.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS played Sundance and premiered Cannes 1995. It opened in 1995 and 1996. Christopher McQuarrie won Best Original Screenplay and Kevin Spacey won Best Supporting Actor at the 1996 Academy Awards,

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