Study Guide

The Usual Suspects Hero's Journey

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.

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