Cult Classic: The Usual Suspects 11 years ago

Cult Classic: The Usual Suspects

Forget The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game; if you want a film with a third act to blow your socks off, there's still no competition for The Usual Suspects.

Let’s just get this out of the way firstly; if you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects, stop reading right now. Or if you like, go watch it now and continue on to the next paragraph when you’re done.


Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze! Sorry about the exuberance but if you didn’t heed our advice, you deserved to be punished as soon as possible. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can begin.

After a nine-draft screenplay was given a middling reception from Hollywood studios, it seemed to screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer that their convoluted yet hugely ambitious noir thriller was never going to get off the ground.

Even when it finally did via European backers, calls from financiers to A-list stars - including Al Pacino, who later said he regrets turning down the film more than any in his career - were fruitless.

With a quick shoot and just a $6 million budget, the film must have felt like a huge risk for many, so we can't really blame the studios for their reluctance to back the project.


Hell, even star Kevin Spacey admitted that he had to read the script fully twice to make sense of it before accepting his role. A wise move when he found himself collecting an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor a six months after the film's release.

The film begins with the interrogation of Roger "Verbal" Kint, one of only two known survivors of a massacre at the Port of Los Angeles believed to have been perpetrated by a seemingly mythical mob boss known as Keyser Soze. Shy, timid and suffering from cerebal palsy, Verbal tells his story to an FBI agent and tells of how he met up with the titular suspects at a police lineup.

Soon Verbal finds himself recounting in flashback and narration how he and Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and Hockney (Kevin Pollack) joined forces to commit a successful robbery before finding themselves at the mercy of a blackmailer named Kobayashi - a lawyer who works for Keyser Soze. A shadowy figure spoken of in hushed tones, Soze apparently killed his entire family and is referred to as "a spook story criminals tell their kids at night".

What The Usual Suspects proves, however, is the power of an incredible twist, as the film’s final moments reveal that Verbal is an incredibly unreliable narrator. Not only does he not have cerebal palsy, he is in fact Keyser Soze and audiences are left to piece together what, if anything, was genuine from the story that had just been brought to screen. Considering that Kobayashi was the name on the mug the FBI agent was drinking, probably not much.


So convoluted was the twist on paper that Gabriel Byrne later admitted that while filming the dock scenes alongside Spacey, he was convinced that his character was in fact Keyser Soze. Had the movie ended in a more typical fashion prior to the twist, he surely would have been, so airtight did Verbal’s sequence of events seem.

That the film’s twist is so all-encompassing, however, means that The Usual Suspects has an unusual legacy – some viewers immediately wanted to watch it again but others were frustrated by the unreliability of the original storyline, with renowned critic Roger Ebert putting the film on his “most hated” list later in the year.

On the other hand, however, the film is currently within the top 30 spots of IMDb’s vaunted “Top 250” list, so its legacy has clearly been undiminished in the years since its release, even though it grossed just $26 in its original box office run.

Seventeen years later, nearly every film fan knows who Keyser Soze, though those that still don't are in for one hell of a treat.


For more cult films, check out the Jameson Cult Film Club.