The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects, which has just gotten a wider release, is an intricate doodle of no special importance. It’s all play, all illusion, all movie. The director, Bryan Singer, has a solid, straightforward visual style, which is fortunate, because for almost half the running time we don’t know what the hell is going on. (If the movie were directed like Batman Forever, we’d get more and more confused until our heads exploded.) The film is arrogantly nonlinear, feeding us gradual bits of a plot that, taken as a whole, isn’t much. (It’s about guys going in on a big score.) Once I got used to what The Usual Suspects was doing, I enjoyed it. You have to admire a movie so sure of its own craftsmanship that it makes you wait and wait for a ludicrously tiny pay-off like a close-up of the bottom of a coffee cup. The movie is a lot like that cup: sturdy, functional, filled with hot stuff whose jolt wears off fast.

All of the above comments, of course, also apply to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, to which the blurbmeisters have compared this film. These are not movies for the time capsule, nor do they aspire to be, which is their chief charm. Men wave guns and talk tougher than they are, or don’t talk as tough as they really are. There’s a Mr. Big whom everyone fears — Singer gives his Mr. Big the most ominous build-up of any movie villain since Hannibal Lecter. There are five guys, basically losers, who meet during a police line-up. Is this a random meeting, or was it arranged by someone else? Each of the men is ordered to step forward, for identification purposes, and say “Hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker,” and if you blink you miss the reason why. The Usual Suspects is like Pulp Fiction with a dozen glowing briefcases. Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie tell their story through one of the men, Verbal (Kevin Spacey), and we’re always aware that the story is only as reliable as its teller.

Nobody blames Rubik’s Cube for failing to make us ponder the meaning of life. It exists to divert us, bug us, make our brains hum in frustration over something trivial. The Usual Suspects has no “point,” no point of view. Neither did most of Hitchcock’s work. This is the sort of movie that catches you leaning so far in the wrong direction that you either hate it (I overheard a lot of “That was stupid” as the audience filed out) or admire its control, but you can’t really love it. Singer doesn’t make the mistake of engaging our emotions. He plays with our need to get the whole story — he involves us as detached observers trying to pull chaos into order — and at the end, The Usual Suspects leaves more questions than it answers. I bet you didn’t know, for instance, that there is such a thing as a Hungarian gang. And when the movie is over, I bet you still won’t know.

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