One day in a bookshop, I flipped through a book entitled: “the movies of the nineties” and this movie wasn’t included! How can a book specialized in cinema skip such a milestone of the last decade? Any movie buff, any cinema critic must have considered the nineties a fruitful era for the American thriller. According to one’s tastes, some will say that the best thriller of the nineties is “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). For others it will be “Pulp Fiction” (1994) while others will praise to the skies “Se7en” (1995). For me, the pinnacle is this present movie, “the Usual Suspects” (1995) with its staggering story (to put it mildly). It’s a sensational debut for Bryan Singer which enabled to put him on the map. With a little help from his accomplice Christopher McQuarrie, he signed an unparalleled gem in the landscape of the American thriller, even the whole cinema.
The average viewer who watches “the Usual Suspects” for the first time might think that the whole crew concocted him a meandering story with as a leading thread, Spacey’s convoluted story. At the end of the projection, he may feel puzzled and will probably wish to watch the movie a second time. He won’t regret it and Singer and McQuarrie will rejoice at it. Their masterwork gains by several repeated viewings to appreciate the subtleties of a rich movie with a convoluted construction which will take its seemingly definitive form in the five last minutes. To watch “the Usual Suspects” is like gathering the pieces of an intriguing puzzle, a little like any other suspenseful movie but in the case of Singer’s flick, one will never really be able to completely end it. So many things happen in less than two hours that we are never really sure of what we watch and this is reinforced by a breathtaking unexpected twist at the end which makes our assumptions falter. Singer and McQuarrie take a mischievous delight in taking the viewer in their nebulous scenario and to follow it according to Spacey’s declarations and it’s obvious that they raise more questions than answers. It’s up to the viewer to make his imagination work and to bring his thoughts on the film. This is what inspires its pernicious charm.
From Spacey’s story, the authors developed a top quality script, set with clockwork precision. Singer’s directorial style virtually evolutes on the razor’s edge and conveys an increasing tension. It is filled with ingenious visual ideas and served by fluid camera movements. Singer was in his early thirties when he shot his film but it presents the signs of a seasoned author. There’s also a tight editing and a unsettling score which cement the movie in its place of winner. More remarkable, the authors pull off with gusto to increase the audience’s curiosity throughout the film in spite of a somewhat deliberate confusion and the interest won’t weaken until the end which constitute the apex: an unexpected twist which will leave the audience speechless once they understood it. In Singer’s flick, it doesn’t disappoint because there are little but noticeable visual and verbal clues which justify it. However, it has something unsettling. We believe that we are at the end of the maze but there’s more to the picture than meets the eye. Maybe this “coup de theatre” veils one more truth. Maybe also the shrewdest ones will have guessed it but the result is the same for any viewer: Singer puts a baffled spectator in his pocket.
Singer and Quarrie show a perfect master in the domain of the film noir: an ominous atmosphere, nocturnal scenes which stay rooted in the mind and a deep psychology of certain characters which give more substance to the film. Considering the last point, the character of Gabriel Byrne is the most interesting one: a former crooked cop who seemingly redeemed himself in catering but caught up by his past and forced to come back to work. I personally think that Byrne is the stand-out of the topflight cast the movie boasts. But don’t neglect the other members. Kevin Spacey pocketed a deservedly Oscar in 1996 and the rest of the cast doesn’t stay on the bench. Maybe Singer grants a little shallow attention to the three others baddies in the gang but in a way it’s necessary to underscore the fact that they’re lousy gangsters embroiled in a infernal spiral and unable to perceive what lies beneath all this. Pete Postlewhaite and Chazz Palminteri make their scenes count too.
A riveting storytelling, a painstaking flash-back, a tight and first-class directing, a thoughtful twist, a topnotch cast, “the Usual Suspects” includes almost everything a director would sell his soul for. Everything contributes to make it a stalwart model in the suspenseful movie and the whole cinema. After the first vision, be prepared for mental gymnastics and for a second screening…