Study Guide

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects Introduction


Release Year: 1995

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie

Stars: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri


Everyone knows certain movie "secrets" before they see the movie. If you tell someone that Darth Vader is actually Luke Skywalker's dad, you're probably not spoiling Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. "Luke, I am your father!" is one of the world's most commonly quoted phrases in pop culture.

And if you tell people that Jack dies at the end of Titanic and they act shocked—well, they're probably living in a shed somewhere in Montana with no internet, because everyone and his mom knows that there was room on that dang door.

But when anyone starts talking about The Usual Suspects, they should have the words "Spoiler Alert!" blinking above their head in giant red neon letters.

Here's the thing: the things you shouldn't say about The Usual Suspects—the twists you absolutely can't reveal without totally torpedoing everything—are what make the movie so unique and so beloved. Spoiling this movie is a cardinal sin in the Church of Cinema-Lovers: you just do not do it.

If you were to read the Netflix blurb without knowing what really happens, The Usual Suspects appears to be a fairly straightforward crime caper: five ace criminals meet in a police lineup and decide to pull off a job together. Doesn't sound like anything we haven't seen before…

But you actually haven't seen anything just like it before. You wouldn't be reading this if there weren't something wildly special and unpredictable about The Usual Suspects.

So we'll say what we can:

Released in 1995, The Usual Suspects was part of the indie crime film renaissance of the 1990's, alongside Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, and A Simple Plan. The mid-90's were all about snappy dialogue and quirky anti-heroes: these movies amped up film noir, adding crazy complications, muchos cuss words, and graphic violence to a long and storied genre.

They also messed with the structure of movies, using flashbacks buried inside flashbacks, strange digressions, and unreliable narrators. (As you'll discover when you watch it, The Usual Suspects goes all-in on one of these devices in a big way).

This movie also brings out the big guns in terms of craggy-looking-and-totally-talented actors: it stars Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite, Benicio del Toro, and Gabriel Byrne's weird Irish accent. The supporting cast includes gun violence, explosives, messy police offices, and the city of Los Angeles in the role of "The City Where Nightmares Come True."

So you have three options. 

  1. Watch this movie for the first time, have your mind blown, and then take a solemn oath never to spoil it. 
  2. Re-watch it and be amazed by the intricate script and the way the spoiler manifests itself. Or 
  3. Don't watch it, and forever miss out on a pop cultural bombshell that changed neo-noir forever.

Only one of these is a bad choice…but we think it's a bad choice on par with angering a semi-mythical Turkish crime lord.

What is The Usual Suspects About and Why Should I Care?

Because if you don't care, Keyser Söze will get you.

Next question?

Ah, we jest. We're never ones to pass up the opportunity to talk at length about why you should care about a) great movies b) videos of sloths in buckets or c) chocolate-covered espresso beans.

You should care about The Usual Suspects because it is a film that's all about audience participation.

No, this ain't The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Although Kevin Spacey would look great in fishnets.) But it is a movie with a script that allows the audience member—that's you—to question the storyline, make your own assumptions, draw conclusions, and create conspiracy theories.

In fact, it encourages it.

But don't take our word for it—just ask screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie:

"The film would not work if it answered all of your questions. I have heard many theories about what happened and some of them are so good I wish I had written them. To me, a film that answers all of your questions is pointless. People are paying a lot of money to support your bullsh*t. If you don't give them something to take with them, you are a thief, a lousy storyteller. To that end, you also have to take something away from them, rob them of some fulfillment. Without mystery there is no love affair." (Source)

That is, we think, just about the most respectful and awesome thing a screenwriter can say to his audience. And it's also about the most intellectually stimulating.

Yeah: when you walk away from your first, second, third, or seventeenth viewing of The Usual Suspects, you have questions. This is a movie that exists in the gray area between lies and truth, and it's up to you to decide how much of its storyline is truth and how much is untrue.

We've taken a solemn vow of "no spoilers" here in the "Why Should I Care?" section (peep the rest of our The Usual Suspects material at your own risk), so we can't say more. But we think that's actually in keeping with McQuarrie's ethos—after all, this is a movie that demands that you answer your own questions.

Trivia

Want to mess with your co-workers or fellow students? Name super-villains and criminals after them and put them into an award-winning screenplay. It worked for Christopher McQuarrie, who took the name Keyser Söze from a lawyer at a law firm where he was working. The supervisor's name was slightly different though: Keyser Sume…Sume must feel honored. (Source)

If you worked for the real-life company Quartet based in Skokie, Illinois, you must've been intrigued by Verbal's claim that he sang in a barbershop quartet in Skokie… McQuarrie got the idea for the big twist in the movie in the same way that his character, David Kujan, discovers that twist—by looking at a bulletin board made by Quartet. (Source)

Benicio del Toro intentionally used an incomprehensible accent for his role. Bryan Singer scratched his head and said (in essence), "Well, this character's only function is to die, so…all right." (Source)

The name "Söze" actually comes from a Turkish expression "söze bagmak" which means "talks too much." So, if you were watching the movie in Turkey, or happened to speak Turkish and English, it would be no surprise when Verbal, the guy who "talks too much" turns out to be Söze. (Source)

The Usual Suspects launches a full-on profanity assault: there are 98 f-bombs in this movie... (Source)

Bryan Singer must have been muttering to himself, "Dance puppets, dance…" as he directed this movie. According to Kevin Spacey, Singer messed with the different actors, convincing each of them that they were Keyser Söze, before finally revealing the truth. When Gabriel Byrne realized that his character, Keaton, wasn't Söze, he was apparently miffed. (Source)

Benicio Del Toro must have hit the musical fruit pretty hard before doing the lineup scene. When they were filming, Del Toro kept farting. Though perhaps accidental, this turned out to be a good creative move, as it set a funny vibe. Instead of playing the scene seriously, as written, the actors ended up doing it in a funny way, with the five criminals bonding with each other. (Source)

The Usual Suspects Resources

WEBSITES

The Usual Suspects IMDB Page
This is a great place to go if you want to see a cast list, learn some technical specifics about the movie, and discover what the big twist really is…thus totally ruining it for yourself.

The Usual Suspects Rotten Tomatoes Page
It's kind of surprising how mixed to negative some of the reactions to The Usual Suspects originally were—Roger Ebert, probably the most famous film critic of his era, didn't like it at all. But, now, all the critics have caught up to speed, and the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes is "it's good."

The Usual Suspects Metacritic Page
This is basically the same thing as Rotten Tomatoes, except this focuses more on reviews from legit newspapers, whereas Tomatoes includes newspapers and random internet reviewers with their own websites.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

"Who is Keyser Söze? A Deep Dive into the Mind Blowing Final Twist in The Usual Suspects" by Gwynne Watkins
This article deserves about five spoiler alerts—it delves deep into the movie's breathtaking, final surprise, examining how the screenwriter figured out what the twist would be in the same way that his character David Kujan discovers the twist. It also discusses the difficulties in making the final scene effective and all the little details that went into making it great—re-editing it, adding a new musical score, etc.

"Bryan Singer Looks Back at 20 Years of The Usual Suspects at San Pedro Fest" by Kristopher Tapley
Singer discusses some of the challenges of making The Usual Suspects—like almost getting kicked out of the port of Los Angeles, and dealing with Benicio Del Toro's weird acting choices.

"Every Studio, Major and Minor, Rejected It – McQuarrie on The Usual Suspects" by David Konow
McQuarrie tells you straight up how he wrote the movie, lays all his cards on the table. In addition to detailing the way he wrote it—no outline, multiple drafts—he also discusses the ending, and the fact that he and the director Bryan Singer have differing opinions on what the ending signifies (though he doesn't explain specifically what).

"Christopher McQuarrie Gets Verbal on The Usual Suspects"
Not only did McQuarrie write a great movie—he also had an interesting life before that, which involved getting fired from an Australian boarding school and working at a detective agency. He talks about all of this in the interview.

"What Critics Thought of The Usual Suspects When It Came Out 20 Years Ago" by Jessica Derschowitz
This article demonstrates that a lot of critics know a classic when they see it. It also demonstrates an ancient truth that the Egyptians (probably) carved on the sides of their pyramids: haters gonna hate. Read this and see who knew what they were talking about and who didn't.

Roger Ebert's Review of The Usual Suspects
Ebert's review was surprisingly negative—he only gave the movie one and a half stars. Maybe it was because he first saw it when he was at a film festival, watching about a hundred other movies, and he lost track of what seemed good? Who knows? Maybe it just wasn't on his frequency…

"14 Unusual Facts About The Usual Suspects" by Eric D. Snider
This is packed with fun facts relating to Benicio Del Toro's flatulence, Al Pacino's decision not to play Kujan, and the unexpected influence of The Wizard of Oz.

"30 Unusual Facts about The Usual Suspects"
If the "14 Unusual Facts" activated your jones for unusual facts—well, there are sixteen more facts on file here.

"The Usual Suspects, 20 Years Later: Everything You Never Knew" by Drew Mackie
This is basically more fun facts, but it goes a little deeper into them, analyzing them and explaining how The Usual Suspects indirectly led to the ongoing superhero movie craze.

VIDEO

Original Trailer for The Usual Suspects
This trailer tells you a lot about the story—even using the name "Keyser Söze"—and has a voiceover from that movie voiceover guy who always says, "In a world…" (He does it in this trailer).

Bryan Singer Explains The Usual Suspects on Charlie Rose
Singer sits down with Charlie Rose—the master of the low-key, conversational and intelligent interview—to discuss The Usual Suspects.

Kevin Spacey Wins Best Supporting Actor at the 1996 Oscars
Spacey accepts the award with a bit of humor, saying, "Whoever Keyser Söze is, he's going to get gloriously drunk tonight…"

Kevin Spacey Interview
Spacey discusses all the villainous roles he's played from Verbal to Frank Underwood to Shakespeare's Richard III. Interestingly, he points out some surprising similarities between all these characters…

Benicio Del Toro Interview on The Usual Suspects
A young, fresh-faced Benicio discusses his weird and comical role in the movie.

Clip: The Origin of Keyser Söze
Verbal fills us in on Söze's bloody origins, telling us about the horrible incident which provoked Söze to kill his own family and then get revenge on the gangsters who had attacked his wife and killed one of his kids.

Clip: The Lineup Scene and Ending Scene
The lineup scene is a comical moment—we're getting to know the characters—but the ending is magical, a revelation of dreadful wonder.

Clip: "I'm Smarter than You"
This scene highlights Kujan's arrogance and over-confidence—qualities that don't work in his favor.

Clip: Kobayashi Explains It All
Kobayashi fills the guys in on the dire nature of their predicament… and its possibly wealth-bestowing payoff.

The Usual Lego Suspects
This Lego re-enactment of the lineup scene features all the un-edited profanity direct from the movie.

AUDIO

The Usual Suspects Theme
The allure of mystery… and suspense… all leading up to one final, spellbinding revelation. You can find it all implied here in the theme.

"New York's Finest"
The clacking percussion feels like its counting down to something…a moment of violent intensity. It's used in the scene where they intercept the emerald dealer.

"The Arrests"
Like "New York's Finest" this also uses clicking percussion to make us feel like time is leading up to something. It plays during the sequence when the guys get arrested, and shows us that things are in the works, wheels are in motion.

"The Greatest Trick"
The Turkish vibe of this soundtrack conjures up a sense of the mystery surrounding Keyser Söze…and the release when that mystery is finally solved, as Kujan looks at the bulletin board. The strings scream and build at the point when we see Kobayashi's name on the coffee cup.

IMAGES

The Usual Suspects Poster
The idea for the poster actually preceded the writing of the script. It was the seed of the movie: the image of five guys in a lineup.

Another Poster
This is basically just a version of the first poster, except with a different feel.

The Lineup
This image of the lineup scene shows a bunch of surly, weary, hostile-looking criminals—a dangerous brew.

Kevin Spacey as Roger "Verbal" Kint
Verbal grabs his bad hand and looks a little hard to gauge in this picture.

Gabriel Byrne as Dean Keaton
Keaton's got a mysterious, handsome Irish dude thing going on. We can't really read this guy.

Chazz Palminteri as Special Agent Dave Kujan
Kujan is in interrogation mode, bending down to face Verbal and get up in his grill.

Stephen Baldwin as Michael McManus
McManus looks like a wiseguy—with a potential edge of craziness and danger.

Benicio Del Toro as Fred Fenster
Fenster's got a bright red shirt on—or is it orange? Debate among yourselves.

Kevin Pollak as Todd Hockney
Hockney rocks the goat-tee and looks like a New Yorker.

Pete Postlethwaite as Kobayashi (The Guy with a Gun Being Put to His Head)
Kobayashi sweats it while McManus puts a gun to his head.

Bryan Singer on the Set of The Usual Suspects
A youthful Singer mans a camera—probably for the dockside boat gunfight scene.

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie
McQuarrie is older in this pic than he was when he wrote the movie. By this time, he's clearly got the gray-haired, sweater-wearing, bespectacled writer thing going on.

The Shattered Coffee Cup
Scope the brand name of the cup, but don't do it before you watch the movie—it'll wreck a crucial detail.