January 24, 2019

Classic film review: The Usual Suspects

The face of modern crime drama changed when Quentin Tarantino’s self-aware and irreverent Reservoir Dogs (1992) first hit the big screen. It was a change that was built upon when director Bryan Singer and scriptwriter Christopher McQuarrie (a former detective, no less) decided that there is nothing quite like a pacy, neo-noir whodunit to keep the moviegoer on their toes, especially if it had a corking twist. Enter The Usual Suspects.The film’s (literally) explosive beginning immediately puts the wheels of this heist thriller in motion. A cargo ship is blown to smithereens after a shoot-out. One of two survivors is interrogated on the crime, and the six weeks leading up to it; it all began when five unlucky criminals were brought together in a police line-up by enigmatic crime kingpin Keyser Söze, a malevolent, quasi-mythical presence who, if the stories are anything to go by, would leave the likes of James Bond both shaken and stirred.A conventional crime drama soon comes into play, solidly bolstered by its moody cinematography, a slick score and the blackly comic banter traded between the five suspects – a quintet of colourful personalities played, with an unflappable finesse, by a killer ensemble that includes Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro and Kevin Spacey. However, the intrigue builds as the mysteries around the crimes they commit thicken with every labyrinthine plot twist, and the film starts to veer away from a formulaic narrative strand.

It is the now-famous whammy of the final twist in particular that has a good portion of the audience falling off their chairs, as they realise that, having been drawn into playing sleuth, they have been manipulated by the character with the best poker face. It is a crucial moment that unfurls a whole new angle to the movie, and one that catapults it apart from other crime dramas, in the way that it navigates notions of reality, myth and the power of speculation. Identity, even life itself, becomes a construct, as narratives within narratives within narratives unfold. It’s enough to make any literary theorist deliriously happy.

The plot poses a calculated, multi-layered riddle to the audience in its form, to the extent that emotional involvement with characters is evidently not a priority; there is also merely the barest hint of a female presence. Despite these detriments, the film is so cleverly executed in terms of structure, style and dramatic tension that, by the end, it is clear that its main aim is to revel in the art of storytelling with gusto. It is a story that you would want to return to at least once after the first time; multiple viewings are inevitable.

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