Study Guide

The Usual Suspects Analysis

  • Keyser Söze

    The Big Bad

    The devil himself. The Loch Ness Monster. The most terrifying man with an umlaut in his name since Hermann Göring.

    Keyser Söze.

    And yes—Söze's also a character. But we covered him in that section already because we covered Verbal, the real Keyser Söze. (We're nothing if not comprehensive.)

    Yet, Söze is more than just Verbal's real identity—he's a symbol pumped up by Verbal, signifying evil and wrath on a major scale. In the version Verbal tells—and which he says he believes—Söze demonstrates his propensity for violence and vengeance in a startlingly psychopathic way.

    When his rivals, a gang of Hungarian drug dealers, rape his wife and slit the throats of one of his children, Söze shows them just how intense and cold he can be.

    Here's how Verbal tells it:

    "They tell Söze they want his territory—all his business. Söze looks over the faces of his family... Then he showed these men of will what will really was... He tells them he would rather see his family dead than live another day after this."

    Söze shoots all of his own remaining children and his wife, right in front of his enemies. He then kills all of the gangsters' families and family friends, before burning down their homes and businesses.

    To say Söze is hardcore is putting it mildly.

    A Good Story? Or Proof Of Huge Evil?

    But…is any of this true? Or is it just an origin story that Verbal wants us to believe to make himself look just as scary as everyone believes he is? We don't know.

    Verbal goes out of his way to make Söze sound like an incarnation of Satan, telling Kujan,

    "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."

    and

    "Keaton always said, "I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him." Well, I believe in God...and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Söze."

    He explains that the cops don't believe in Söze because they always think there's a more rational explanation, something smaller and simpler—they don't want to believe in a master arch-criminal directing crime from behind the scenes.

    The scene where Kujan pins Keaton as the bad guy might trick us into thinking that there is this smaller, more reasonable explanation—but the finale, in which Verbal turns out to be Keyser, shows us that the movie wants us to be open to this idea of true, masterly evil.

    Interesting tidbit: the word "Söze" actually comes from a Turkish expression söze bagmak, which means, "talks too much" in Turkish. So, if you were watching the movie in Turkey, it would be no surprise when Verbal, the guy who "talks too much" turns out to be Söze. (Source)

    And that, guys, is why you should strive to be bilingual—in order to figure out movies a full ninety minutes ahead of all those monolingual chumps.

  • Bulletin Board

    It's not just a hunk of cork that doubles as a 3-D Pinterest; it's also a symbol that packs a wallop. In fact, the bulletin-board-as-symbol blows up the whole plot of the movie…not to mention blowing thousands of mid-90's moviegoers' minds.

    When Kujan finally notices the details of bulletin board, he discovers that Verbal made up his story…using details on the bulletin board. Huh. Maybe this is why interrogation rooms are typically devoid of paperwork and inspiration boards?

    After all, Sgt. Rabin describes his office (including the bulletin board) as a place of controlled chaos:

    "Yeah. It's got it's own system though. It all makes sense when you look at it right. You just have to step back from it, you know? You should see my garage. Now, that's a horror show..."

    The bulletin board itself symbolizes the untrustworthiness of certain stories, and how narrators sometimes have their own questionable motives. Even the company that made the bulletin board—Quartet in Skokie, Illinois—becomes the basis for a Verbal lie. In fact, it's this detail that tips off Kujan.

    Earlier in their conversation, we hear this exchange:

    VERBAL: That was how I ended up in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois.

    KUJAN: That is totally irrelevant.

    VERBAL: Oh, but it's not. If I hadn't been nailed in Illinois for running a three card monte in between sets, I never would have took off for New York. I never would have met Keaton, see. That barber shop quartet was the reason for everything. 

    And this bit of info is relevant…but just not for the reasons Verbal states. It's relevant because once Kujan sees that the bulletin board was manufactured in Skokie, he realizes that Verbal was using visual cues to piece his story together.

    And that he used a lot of them. From the bulletin board we realized that Verbal's story about picking beans in Guatemala was bogus and that the name Redfoot was totally made up.

    Kujan learns that Verbal's story doesn't point towards Keaton—it points toward this bulletin board…which points toward Verbal as the true Söze.

  • Kobayashi Mug

    As Kujan stares at the bulletin board (and you can almost hear the ka-blam sound of his mind exploding) he drops his coffee mug, which shatters on the floor.

    This part of the movie really upsets us. We're always brought to tears when perfectly good coffee—or perfectly good coffee accessories—are wasted.

    But breaking this mug achieves a major breakthrough: Kujan sees that brand name on the fragment from the bottom of the mug reads, "Kobayashi"—a fact punctuated by the strings on the soundtrack dramatically swelling.

    This shows that Verbal didn't just make up a few small details in his story—like riffs about a barbershop quartet and picking coffee beans. He made up big details, like the name of Keyser Söze's own henchman, a crucial player in the movie.

    The mug leaves us thinking—if Verbal invented the name of Kobayashi, how much of his story can we believe?

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    In the beginning of Verbal's story—the part he tells at a California court hearing—we witness Verbal and the other "usual suspects" engaged in typical mundane activities in New York. McManus is sleeping, Keaton is eating with his girlfriend and several businessmen at a fancy restaurant, Hockney is working in an auto-body shop, and Fenster is walking down the street.

    They don't know what's about to hit them.

    Call To Adventure

    The cops sweep in and arrest the five usual suspects, humiliating Keaton at his business dinner in the process. They put them all in the lineup together, and leave them to their own devices in a jail cell—giving them all too much time to concoct a scheme.

    McManus has an idea: why don't they get back at the cops by robbing an emerald smuggler and the crooked cops who are escorting him into New York? The other guys are all immediately in—except for Keaton, who hesitates.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Keaton doesn't want to help the other guys, because he's (apparently) had a good thing going with Edie, living a crime-free, legitimate life. But he also really wants to get back at the cops for humiliating him and messing up his business meeting—he thinks they've ruined him, reduced him to a laughingstock by putting him in this lineup. Thus, he only needs a little prodding and cajoling from Verbal in order to agree to join their gang and get in on the deal.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Does Verbal have a mentor? Who really shows him the path? In the story he's telling, he portrays Keaton as a superior man, a criminal he looks up to and admires.

    But, in real life, Verbal seems to have a great deal of competence, spinning out his story while trying to avoid betraying himself to Kujan. He defends Keaton to Kujan, claiming that Keaton was an essentially decent guy who was trying to ditch the criminal life. But Kujan says that Keaton was a vicious murderer, who killed witnesses and other prisoners when he was in prison.

    Crossing The Threshold

    The five suspects launch right into a robbery and assault. They pull up in vans, pinning in the emerald dealer and the two corrupt cops who are escorting him. At gunpoint, they snatch the jewels along with some cash.

    Afterwards, they torch the car—though the cops and the smuggler are able to get out before they get burned. This is the criminal act that makes them a group—but they all want to travel to L.A. to sell the goods, so that McManus and Fenster won't go by themselves and rip everyone else off.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    McManus's L.A. connection, Redfoot, is happy to "fence" (buy) their stolen jewels—and he has another mission for them.

    They can rob another apparent jewel smuggler named Saul Berg and sell the goods to Redfoot again—sounds just as easy as the first job.

    But they end up needing to kill Berg and his bodyguards and it turns out there are no jewels—just heroin. Redfoot explains that the job was arranged through a mysterious lawyer, Kobayashi. Angry with Redfoot, tensions flare and they almost get into a gunfight with him—but he leaves before anything happens.

    Next, the need to deal with Kobayashi himself, who tracks them down and tries to force them to rob a major drug shipment and the port—telling them that some of them will die in the attempt, but the payoff for the others will be vast. He explains that he's the emissary of a secretive crime lord, Keyser Söze, who has been ripped off by them at different times in the past (without their realizing it).

    When Fred Fenster tries to bail on Kobayashi's plan, Söze has him killed. The others threaten to kill Kobayashi, but he demonstrates to them that he's for real in his threats, showing them that he's gotten Keaton's girlfriend Edie, under his observation. They have to go through with the plan.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    As boat night comes, the criminals slide into top gear. McManus snipes the Argentinean and Hungarian gangsters who are present for the deal, while Keaton guns down guys and Hockney rigs up explosives that rock the boat. Things seem to go according to plan…

    Ordeal

    But that's when everything falls apart. As it turns out, there are no drugs on the boat—it wasn't a drug deal after all. Nevertheless, Hockney finds a van full of money, but before he can find out what it's for or can take it, he gets shot.

    The Argentinean gangsters on the boat were actually selling a snitch—Arturo Marquez—to a gang of Hungarians who want to milk him for info about Keyser Söze. Shortly after Hockney bites the dust, Söze kills Marquez, and then stabs McManus in the back of the head. Finally, he blows Keaton away, while Verbal (he says) observes this as he hides behind a bunch of rope.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    But, turns out, Verbal made up much of his story—Kujan realizes that numerous details Verbal's been telling him were taken off a bulletin board. In his shock, he even drops his coffee mug—revealing that the brand named on the bottom of the cup is "Kobayashi." Verbal also pulled the name "Redfoot" off the bulletin board, along with little details about picking coffee beans in Guatemala and singing in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois.

    So, after whatever he actually went through with the four other criminals, Verbal has seized the sword by…lying. He's successfully spun the story in his own favor, pretending to be weak and stupid and even capable of being manipulated, while actually manipulating Kujan. His reward is his freedom.

    The Road Back

    As Verbal walks down the street outside the police station, Kujan grows frantic. He runs around the station, asking where Verbal went. Meanwhile, Verbal is strolling down the sidewalk, in no big hurry.

    Suddenly, he sheds the limp he's had all movie long, and his damaged hand is suddenly as good as new, as he lights a cigarette—he was faking the disabilities.

    Resurrection

    Now, we start to get the idea—Verbal isn't really Verbal. When a sketch of Keyser Söze arrives in the station via fax (based on a surviving Hungarian gangster's description), it looks…just like Verbal. He was the master criminal, all along.

    He's been pretending to be Roger "Verbal" Kint, but now he's free to disappear, assuming his old identity once again. As he said earlier in the movie, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."

    Return With The Elixir

    Verbal escapes, leaving a panicked Kujan behind. The driver who picks up Verbal—or should we say Söze?—looks just like the Kobayashi character from the story.

    Having finished his journey as Verbal Kint, dodging cops and courtroom interrogators, the man is now free to become the arch-criminal he always secretly was. Keyser Söze is back in business.

  • Setting

    Los Angeles

    Not in Kansas—or New York—Anymore

    Guess what movie inspired Bryan Singer when envisioning the setting for The Usual Suspects? If you guessed anything other than The Wizard of Oz, you're wrong. (Source)

    Weirdly, that was Singer's model—there are no munchkins or flying monkeys in this flick, after all—but it makes sense if you think about it.

    The five suspects start off in New York, which Singer sees as a place of concrete, practical realities. It's not a land where dreams come true, but a place where the cops drag you out of bed and into a police lineup. It's also where the suspects hatch their scheme and carry out their first robbery as vengeance against the cops—a heist that goes off believably and successfully. New York is what "Kansas" is in the Wizard of Oz: everyday life.

    But when they head to L.A. to sell those goods, it's like when Dorothy gets transported to Oz via tornado. Now, they're in a world where anything can happen—dreams can come true…but so can nightmares.

    L.A. is where Keyser Söze tricks them into his service, and finally destroys them. It's the kind of place where a seemingly mythical criminal can resurface and assert his control.

    Actual L.A. sites figure importantly in the movie, too. The suspects conduct their dealings with Redfoot at the Korean Bell of Friendship, and have their final shoot-out at the Port of Los Angeles (which is located in San Pedro, a harbor-side community in L.A.). (Source)

    Micro-settings are extremely important to the movie too: for instance, the messy, messy office where Kujan interviews Verbal.

    Sgt. Rabin describes it this way:

    "Yeah. It's got it's own system though. It all makes sense when you look at it right. You just have to step back from it, you know? You should see my garage. Now, that's a horror show..."

    Within it's clutter, Verbal is able to pick out details from the bulletin board, constructing a story right under Kujan's nose. There is a system hidden in it—the clues to Verbal's fabricated story—although Rabin doesn't realize it.

  • Point of View

    Story Within A Story, Unreliable Narrator

    In the same way that Verbal cons Kujan, The Usual Suspects cons the audience—and we mean that in the best possible way.

    We're dealing with an unreliable narrator in Verbal, and much of the movie is comprised of the story he's telling us. Kujan doesn't trust him, and we're not sure whether we can trust him either. Kujan thinks Verbal's covering for Keaton, and we (as the audience) go along with that assumption—like Kujan, we don't realize how deep the con really goes.

    We spend most of the movie seeing Verbal tell a story that, in the end, turns out to be largely fabricated—maybe a lot of it did happen, but so many crucial details were changed that it's impossible to tell what elements might be true.

    And, of course, the biggest change involves the identity of Verbal. Throughout the movie, we believe that the story's protagonist is a real guy, who walks around with a real limp—and then we finally realize that this, the most basic and central element of the narrative, is the center of the con.

    Verbal is Keyser Söze, master criminal—and the story we heard was actually Söze's story…and it was designed to fool us.

    The Usual Suspects narrative technique is like the devil's technique in Verbal's proverb: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist." The movie first convinces us that Söze doesn't exist, before finally flipping the table totally and convincing us that he does—changing the way we view and approach the narrative.

  • Genre

    Neo-Noir, Whodunit, Buddy Movie

    Back in the mid-1990's, people were in love with cool, nihilistic movies with a high body count and reckless anti-heroes at the center—like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and (that's right) The Usual Suspects.

    These neo-noirs took the basic plot structures of older film noirs—like, group of criminals get together to pull a heist—and added more violence, more cussing, and tricks and quirks. (The ending of The Usual Suspects is a good example of one of these tricks.)

    But The Usual Suspects is also a classic "whodunit"—a mystery in which we try to figure out—yup—who the real criminal is. Was it really a mysterious, arch-criminal like Söze? Or was it someone more mundane, like Keaton? The ending to a "whodunit" would be pointless if it weren't shocking—and Usual Suspects definitely delivers the shocking goods.

    Finally, it's a buddy movie—because these guys are buddies. They commit crimes together, but they also bro-out. We see them playing pool, getting to know each other in a jail cell, burying Fenster in the sand, and braiding each other's hair (not really, but Keaton would look stunning). We hang out with these guys and get to know them—which makes it kind of sad when they (mostly) die.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Unusually Usual

    Can't come up with a title? When in doubt just…rip it off of a magazine article. (You can't copyright a title—so technically, you can write a book and name it Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban if you want).

    At any rate, jacking a title from a magazine worked for Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter of The Usual Suspects.

    McQuarrie said he got the idea for the title from a Spy Magazine article entitled…wait for it: "The Usual Suspects." (Source)

    But the term actually comes from a way less obscure source. At the end of the movie Casablanca—usually considered one of the three or four greatest movies of all time—Captain Renault (played by Claude Rains) decides against arresting his friend Rick for shooting a Nazi officer. Instead, he tells the cops, "Round up the usual suspects."

    The Usual Suspects begins with rounding up "the usual suspects"—five known criminals, all familiar to the cops, and all possible culprits in hijacking a truck. We think we're just going to see these guys pulling off crimes together, pooling their forces, which is what we do see, at first.

    But the focus of the movie changes entirely when Keyser Söze enters the picture.

    Since Söze's this masterful, mythical, arch-criminal, he's really an unusual suspect. The five guys are criminals the cops have all heard of; they're known on sight. Söze isn't. He's a rare species, maybe a legendary one like the Loch Ness Monster (to whom Verbal compares him).

    Of course, the twist comes when we realize that one of the usual suspects is really this unusual suspect. Milquetoast Verbal is really ruthless killer Söze. What appeared to be "usual" was really anything but.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    This office bulletin board has more on it than coupons and family photos…it also has the key to the mystery of the whole movie.

    After Verbal leaves the office, David Kujan sits around feeling momentarily satisfied—he thinks Dean Keaton was the main bad guy, since he just forced Verbal to admit this.

    But as he stares at the bulletin board he realizes that something's wrong. Details Verbal has told him were all pulled from the board—from the name Redfoot, to the bit about picking coffee beans in Guatemala, to the story about how Verbal was once in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois.

    When he drops his coffee cup in a gut-sinking astonishment, we see from the broken pieces, that Verbal invented the name "Kobayashi" from the brand of the cup, too.

    Kujan's too late to catch Verbal, who shakes off his fake limp and damaged hand, and jumps in a car with a guy who looks like the Kobayashi from the story. Meanwhile, a sketch of Keyser Söze, based on Arkosh Kovash's description, arrives at the station via fax…and it looks a lot like Verbal.

    We also see interspersed clips of Söze—who looks like Verbal—shooting Keaton and the other three criminals on the docks. So, Kujan's left behind to learn the bitter truth that super-criminals really do exist, while Verbal hightails it back to whatever secret lair he's going to inhabit now…

    When asked about the movie's ending, the screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie refused to explain what really happened in any detail:

    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 bullshit. 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)

    Despite McQuarrie's evasions, it seems pretty clear that we're supposed to believe that Verbal is Keyser Söze. The faxed sketch of Söze looks just like him, he fabricated his whole story, he doesn't really have a limp…what else could be the case?

    To make sure you get the point, when Verbal/Söze finally drives off with his chauffeur, we hear a clip of Verbal saying something he told Kujan earlier about Söze,

    "After that...my guess is you'll never hear from him again."

    The clip wouldn't be playing when Verbal left if we weren't supposed to think that he was Söze…and that Kujan won't ever see him again. That's clearly what most people get out of the movie.

    But there are still open questions—like, how much of this story did Verbal really make up? Did Verbal just make up the name "Kobayashi" while describing a real person or invent the whole character? How long was he going by the name "Verbal Kint"? Did he really shoot his whole family in order to show Hungarian gangsters he couldn't be intimidated?

    Well, the truth is…we don't know. The movie solves one mystery—the identity of Keyser Söze—while leaving a thousand other mysteries wide open.

  • Shock Rating

    R

    If you love the f-word, you're going to love this movie. It doesn't have as many as South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut or Reservoir Dogs...but it has a lot of f-bombs just the same.

    One of the most famous scenes basically involves each of the five suspects reciting an f-word laden line as they stand in the police lineup. It's guaranteed to warm the heart of any profanity lover.

    Also, there's a decent amount of violence—the criminals cap Saul Berg and his guards, and later blast the two guys who are protecting Kobayashi. Finally, in the boat-assault sequence, there's a ton of violence, and only Verbal and Arkosh Kovash survive.

    Additionally, we see the stream of Keyser Söze's pee. Does that help earn a movie an R-rating? Probably. We've never seen Simba or Bambi take a wee on film, so we figure that kind of urine-related imagery is not for the G-rated crowd.