A mild-mannered criminal-lite. A sociopathic criminal mastermind. And they happen to be the same dude.
In our opinion, Verbal Kint's name should have been Widow's Peak Kint—for us, that's his most defining feature. But "Verbal" is a little easier, so that's what the screenwriter went for.
However, the character of Verbal is anything but easy. In fact, it turns out that there are two Verbals: there's Verbal as he presents himself in the story he tells, and there's Verbal as he really is.
We'll start with the first Verbal.
Verbal presents himself as a physically disabled person; he's got a limp and a damaged arm. Consequently, he needs to get by with words. But, as he explains to the other four criminals, "People say I talk too much." (Hence his nickname.)
Occasionally, this gift o' gab helps him get out of tight situations: he's able to talk Dean Keaton into joining forces with the rest of the gang and participating in their heist, for one thing. But, at the same time, this stream of words can morph into verbal diarrhea, like when he starts babbling about the barbershop quartet he used to belong to in Skokie, Illinois, or about picking coffee beans:
"Back when I was picking beans in Guatemala we used to make fresh coffee. Right off the trees I mean. That was good. This is shit, but hey, I'm in a police station."
Fortunately for him, Verbal's struck a sweet deal with the police—as one of only two survivors from a dockside shoot-out, he gets immunity in return for his testimony about what happened. It seems like a cakewalk—aside from a weapons charge, he's pretty much home free.
But there's one fly in the ointment—U.S. Customs Special Agent David Kujan, who's not buying Verbal's story. He wants to know the truth.
As Kujan interrogates him, we learn more about Verbal—or at least we think we learn more about him.
He portrays himself as someone who's weak, who's a little scattered, and who couldn't be the leader of a gang if he tried:
"But why me? Why not Hockney or Fenster or McManus? I'm a cripple. I'm stupid. Why me?"
At this point in the movie, we want to enroll Verbal in some self-esteem-boosting seminars. We also want to tell him to cool it on the hero-worship when it comes to talking about Dean—Verbal talks about Dean in the kind of way that aspiring actors talk about Meryl Streep.
He puffs up Dean Keaton as a man he admired, the most competent and straightforward guy in their group. When Kujan argues that Keaton must have masterminded their first heist, Verbal says,
"You keep trying to lay this whole ride on Keaton. It wasn't like that. Sure he knew, but Edie [Keaton's girlfriend] had him all turned around. I'm telling you straight, I swear."
Instead, Verbal blames Keyser Söze—a seemingly mythical super-villain—for the dockside massacre. He makes Söze sound so evil and powerful that Kujan ends up believing that Söze's a fake; that the name Keyser Söze is just a convenient smokescreen for Keaton.
In the end, after Kujan berates at him and insists Keaton was the true villain, Verbal breaks down crying. He puts on a show worthy of the Oscar that Kevin Spacey actually won for playing Verbal:
"It was all Keaton! We followed him from the beginning! I didn't know! I saw him die! I believe he's dead, oh Christ!"
He admits he might've imagined that he saw Söze shooting Keaton, or didn't see it clearly. Verbal leaves, seemingly angry at Kujan for wringing the truth out of him.
And that's the last we see of weak, milquetoast, mild Verbal.
But almost as soon as Verbal limps out of the police station, we start to get a glimpse of the real Verbal…a.k.a. Keyser Söze.
Guess it's too late to yell "Spoiler Alert," huh?
In truth, Verbal isn't weak, and he's definitely not stupid. In fact, he doesn't even have a limp or a bad hand—he drops the disabled act as he strolls from the station. He's a criminal mastermind of mythic proportions who's been toying with Kujan this whole time.
By telling Kujan about Keyser Söze—and by comparing him to the Loch Ness Monster even as he insists that he exists—Verbal intentionally convinces Kujan not to believe in Söze. He's so good at this game (and he knows he's so good at this game) that he even talks about what he himself is doing while he's doing it:
"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
Oh, Keyser. You are good. You're very good.
But who is Söze, really? Is he actually the international, soulless killing machine that Verbal presents him as being? Or is he someone completely different?
Since we know that Verbal/Keyser is lying about Söze's identity, we start to doubt all the information we've been given in this movie.
What about the story about the four other criminals and their adventures together—was that true? Did Söze really play the role of Verbal the whole time…or did he just invent that identity to tell his tale in court? Was he hanging out with the other criminals since they met in the police lineup in New York?
Thanks, The Usual Suspects. Now we're going to be up all night, pondering every detail. (No wonder this movie's so popular.)
But we know one thing for sure: Verbal's extremely smart, and he's extremely ruthless. He's a force of pure wrath, even though he seems cool, calm, and collected. In short, he's the ultimate criminal.
To paraphrase a quote from The Godfather, Part III: just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
According to Verbal Kint, Dean Keaton's a basically decent guy who wants to go legit and put his criminal past behind him. The first time we see Dean, it seems to confirm Verbal's opinion—he and his lawyer girlfriend, Edie Finneran, are meeting with a group of businessmen to discuss a proposition for starting a new restaurant.
Aww. How upstanding.
But Keaton's restaurateur dreams are shattered when cops suddenly roust Dean from this dinner meeting and drag him into a police lineup with Verbal and the others—humiliating him in front of his would-be business partners.
Keaton's so angry afterwards, that, after a little prompting for Verbal, he decides to re-embrace a life of crime. The other criminals all look up to him, and they're glad to have him in on their heist—he's apparently a pretty experienced and savvy criminal. He's also a gentleman through and through…sort of like Danny Ocean, if Danny Ocean had had a dubious Irish accent.
But again, this is all Dean Keaton according to Verbal Kint.
And Kujan isn't buying it. The way Kujan describes Keaton, he's a vicious and unrepentant murderer:
"I've been investigating him for three years. The guy I know is a cold-blooded bastard. N.Y.P.D. indicted him on three counts of murder before he was kicked off the force, so don't sell me the hooker with the heart of gold... Keaton was under indictment a total of seven times when he was on the force. In every case, witnesses either reversed their testimony to the grand jury or died before they could testify. When they finally did nail him for fraud, he spent five years in Sing Sing. He killed three prisoners inside - one with a knife in the tailbone while he strangled him death."
When we learn at the end of the movie that Verbal made up much of his story, we realize that Kujan's depiction of Keaton might be the correct one—in fact, it probably is, given that anyone who murders witnesses has got to be a bad dude.
After Kujan tells Verbal that he knows about Keaton's badness, we see Verbal adjust his story a little. On the surface, it seems like he's trying to make Keaton look better—but of course what he actually wants to do is obliquely cast more suspicion on Keaton.
He does, however, Keaton's violence seem a bit less than psychopathic. For example, he tells Kujan that Keaton and Redfoot exchanged the following dialogue:
REDFOOT: The way I hear it, you did time with ol' Spook. Good man, wasn't he? I used to run dope for him. Too bad he got shivved.
KEATON: Yeah. (Pause). I shivved him. Better you hear it from me now than from somebody else later.
REDFOOT: Yeah, well, I appreciate that. Just out of curiosity, was it business or personal?
KEATON: A bit of both.
This makes it sound like Keaton might've had his reasons for stabbing this guy—and maybe they weren't so bad. But since we learn at the end that Redfoot isn't real, we recognize that Verbal was just messing with Kujan—we don't know what Keaton was like, in a first-hand way.
We just get Verbal's distorted version.
Keaton remains a closed book to us at the end, when we see Verbal/Söze kill him in a flashback to the boat massacre. Was he a bad guy? Yeah, probably.
But we only ever encounter him as a character in Verbal's story—the Keaton we know is a fictional representation, though one possibly based on fact.
Let Kujan be a lesson to all of you: do not judge books by their covers. Especially if that book is titled Verbal Kint.
To put it mildly, Kujan's a little over-confident. He's dealing with this physically disabled, mild-looking little guy and he thinks that he obviously has the upper hand.
He actually says to Verbal, point-blank:
"I'll get right to the point. I'm smarter than you. I'll find out what I want to know and I'll get it from you whether you like it or not."
Of course, it turns out that he's way underestimating Verbal…and way, way overestimating himself.
Kujan, a U.S. Customs Special Agent, brings a threatening, bullying style to his interrogation of Verbal. He's annoyed that Verbal has received immunity and now Kujan has no leverage by which to make him tell the truth. Even though Kujan's trying to do a good thing—arrest Dean Keaton, who he thinks is behind the boat massacre and the murder of Edie Finneran—he goes in for some down-and-dirty tactics.
"Not from me, you piece of shit. There is no immunity from me. You atone with me or the world you live in becomes the hell you fear in the back of your tiny mind. Every criminal I have put in prison, every cop who owes me a favor, every creeping scumbag that works the street for a living, will know the name of Verbal Kint. You'll be the lowest sort of rat, the prince of snitches, the loudest cooing stool pigeon that ever grabbed his ankles for the man. Now you talk to me, or that precious immunity they've seen so fit to grant you won't be worth the paper the contract put out on your life is printed on."
Eventually, Kujan "forces"—and there are not enough quotation marks in the world to underline how sarcastic that "forces" is—Verbal to tell him that Keaton was the man who orchestrated it all. He wants his own theory confirmed and that's exactly what Verbal gives him, all the while acting reluctant.
Kujan thought there was something going on behind Verbal's story, some truth Verbal was withholding, so he feels satisfied when he finally ferrets it out.
But the thing is—he's been tricked. The story was actually made up, designed to make Kujan suspect Keaton by making him suspect that Verbal was covering for Keaton.
But Kujan was right about one thing: he is actually a pretty smart guy. After Verbal leaves, it takes Kujan an impressively small amount of time to figure out that Verbal made up the story using details from the bulletin board. That's some quick thinking.
And he's also diligent—he runs outside immediately, but he doesn't have enough time to catch Verbal, who's already left, shaking off his fake limp and assuming his true identity as Keyser Söze, arch-criminal.
Kujan is a textbook example of how "pride cometh before the fall." He's so confident that he can threaten the truth out of Verbal that he fails to notice the ruse. His arrogance undoes him.
In many ways, this is the guy that starts the whole crime-spree rolling.
Sure, the cops are responsible in that they put five known felons in a lineup and a jail cell together. But McManus is the man who unites them and suggests that they get a little revenge on the cops. He tells them that he and Fenster heard that two corrupt cops are escorting an emerald smuggler into New York and they want to jack his jewels. From there, it's just a matter of convincing Keaton, and the whole gang is in.
Verbal describes McManus as a "good guy" but "crazy." We see a little of this side of McManus, when he's holding a gun to Kobayashi's head and arguing with Redfoot.
Later, as he prepares to start gunning down Argentinean and Hungarian gangsters, he sings a little song to himself:
"Old McDonald had a farm, ee-aye, ee-aye, oh. And on this farm he shot some guys. Ba-da-bip, ba-da-bing, bang-boom."
Maybe he's singing this to calm his nerves, or maybe he just likes shooting people and is looking forward to it?
In the end, McManus proves yet another of Söze's casualties…after shooting Hockney, and Arturo Marquez, Söze stabs McManus in the back of the neck, leaving the knife in.
If McManus had only listened to McGruff the Crime Dog...
No one can figure out what this guy is saying… and that's the way it's supposed to be. The actor who played Fenster—the always-awesome Benicio Del Toro—intentionally used an incomprehensible accent when delivering his lines.
This wasn't something the writer and director were planning on, but they decided to roll with it—even though it effectively eliminated the dialogue McQuarrie had written for Fenster. So thanks to Del Toro's creativity—and perhaps his inherent, brilliant weirdness—we all remember Fenster because of how incomprehensible he is. (Source)
Aside from this defining quirk, we know that Fenster's pals with McManus, and is one of the two crooks most responsible for leading them into the whole deciding-to-pull-off-the-emerald-heist-and-fence-their-stolen-goods-to-Redfoot mess.
But back to the accent…
Other characters demonstrate that they can't understand Fenster's speech, making it clear to the audience that we're not supposed to be getting it either. It's a running gag. For instance, one of the cops at the lineup says, "In English, please?" when Fenster recites the line they're giving him to read. Also, Hockney asks, "What did you say?" when Fenster mumbles something.
But why limit the character this way? Obviously it makes Fenster seem pretty one note. This is because Fenster plays no greater role in the movie than to die: Bryan Singer says,
I had to think, "Does anything this character say have any relevance or importance?" And then I realized, "No, his entire purpose is to die." (Source)
And die he does. After Kobayashi makes the gang an offer they can't refuse—work for Söze and pull off a drug heist or face the unpleasant consequences—Fenster tries to split. Söze has him killed, and Kobayashi sends the other guys to the seaside cave where Fenster's body is lying.
This demonstrates to the other characters that Söze ain't nothin' to mess with. And we take leave of Fenster as he lies in a sandy grave.
By day, Hockney works as an auto mechanic—but he dabbles in crime on the down-low, with special expertise in explosives. As a person, he seems a little cocky. When the cops interrogate him, he makes nothing but wise-guy comments. They say they can place him in Queens on the night of the hi-jacking, to which Hockney sardonically responds,
"I live in Queens."
In the scene where he and the other four suspects are getting to know each other in the jail, Hockney helps wring info out of the guys, asking about Keaton's lawyer girlfriend, and about who "the gimp" is—meaning Verbal. Then, Verbal has to explain his identity.
So, he's helping feed us—the audience—a little more background, giving us the lay of the land.
Hockney participates in the emerald-stealing job, and goes to L.A. with the other "usual suspects" to fence the goods to Redfoot. He's present for all their jobs, but is not necessarily radiating his character, aside from making the occasional wisecrack.
In the end, he uses his explosives ability to help attack the boat containing the Argentinean gangsters. When he finds the van full of cash—which is going to be used to pay for Arturo Marquez—he experiences a brief moment of joy…before Keyser Söze shoots and kills him.
Kobayashi's the man behind the man—but not the man behind the man behind the man (that would be Keyser Söze, Kobayashi's boss).
After the five suspects fly to L.A., he tricks them into working for Söze by hiring them to do a job through Redfoot. When that works out really badly—though they manage to steal the drug shipment Söze wanted—Kobayashi confronts them in person, telling them that they all ripped Söze off without realizing it, at one time or another in the past, through various jobs they've pulled.
They can either help Söze by stealing a shipment of drugs from a group of Argentinean gangsters, or they can punk out and have horrible things happen to them and to their families. When Fenster tries to skip out on the deal, he gets killed—proving that Kobayashi is for real.
Kobayashi presents these stark alternatives in a totally straightforward, businessman-like way. He's totally impersonal—it's not like he has personal reasons for wanting these guys dead, and neither does Keyser. It's just business.
We can't get much of a read on Kobayashi because we don't see him lounging around at home in his underwear or buying oranges at a farmer's market or anything like that. He's Söze's representative, his messenger—and not a multi-sided characterin any way.
After Fenster dies, the suspects think they can threaten Kobayashi into releasing them from the deal. They kill two of his guards and then put a gun to his head. Trying to remain impersonal, but clearly fearing for his life, Kobayashi tells them that he actually is working on a legal issue (an extradition) with Keaton's girlfriend, Edie Finneran, and she's in the building right now.
Keaton doesn't believe him at first, but Kobayashi shows them that it's true. Now they're scared, realizing that Kobayashi and Söze have a disturbingly long reach, and they agree to cave and attack the boat…which works out terribly for all of them, except Verbal.
And then there's the twist: in the end, we discover that Kobayashi is a fictitious character—although someone like him may have existed. After realizing that Verbal made up much of his story using details from the office bulletin board, Kujan drops his coffee mug—it breaks and we see the word "Kobayashi" printed on the bottom. Kobayashi is just the name of a coffee cup manufacturer.
But the guy who picks up Verbal at the end looks exactly the same as the Kobayashi from the story... so, maybe he actually was the henchman who contacted the five usual suspects?
But we'll have to wait for the (non-existent, never-gonna-happen) sequel to find out.
If you won't tell him what he wants to hear, Jack will torture you in horrible ways, and—oh, wait, no. That's Jack Bauer, the Keifer Sutherland character from 24.
This guy is Jack Baer, the FBI Special Agent who interviews Arkosh Kovash, the burned Hungarian survivor of the boat massacre.
Baer functions as an important information tool. He finds out about Keyser Söze from Kovash and then relays this info to Kujan, along with the fact that the Argentinean boat gangsters weren't dealing drugs—they were trading a snitch, Arturo Marquez, to Hungarian gangsters who were rivals of Söze.
So that's all you really need to know about Jack Baer.
You might say that Edie Finneran has a thing for bad boys. She's girlfriend to Dean Keaton, who seems to have been a pretty bad guy himself (at least if we buy Kujan's description of Keaton as a vicious murderer).
Edie's a defense lawyer and Keaton's a crooked former-cop—makes sense, in a way, right?
But, no surprise—this relationship doesn't work out very well. Not only do the cops humiliate Keaton by putting him into a lineup with known criminals, but he's unwittingly manipulated into going to L.A. at the wishes of Keyser Söze (if we can trust Verbal's story that far). This leaves Edie behind, and leaves her vulnerable to Keaton's enemies.
According to Verbal, Keyser's henchman Kobayashi says that Söze will order Edie's death if Keaton refuses to cooperate and attack the supposed dockside drug shipment for Söze—Kobayashi actually has Edie in his office building, since she's working on an extradition with him (it turns out to be the extradition of Arturo Marquez, the snitch Söze wants to kill—and does kill).
So, Keaton cooperates and participates in the assault, the purpose of which was actually to allow Söze to sneak in and kill Marquez. Söze murders Keaton once the job is done… and Edie's body is later found in a motel room in Pennsylvania (also a victim of Söze).
Kujan thinks that Keaton actually killed her, but the final revelation indicates that Verbal likely ordered Edie's death.
Rabin has a messy office—which is lucky for Verbal. If Verbal hadn't told Kujan his story in such an office, he might not have been able to find enough material to fabricate his stories. Fortunately for him, Rabin's office has a bulletin board packed full of little details that feed right into Verbal's story.
Aside from providing the office, Rabin doesn't play a huge role in the movie. He mainly just hangs out and supports Kujan during the interrogation, occasionally acting as an information tool. For instance, he tells Kujan that,
"This guy [Verbal] is protected—from up on high by the prince of fucking darkness."
Little does Rabin know that Verbal actually is the prince of darkness, a master criminal routinely compared to the devil.
Who ever thought that a guy who deals in stolen goods would turn out to be untrustworthy? The five "usual suspects" seem kind of surprised when Redfoot manipulates them, but, hey—they should've seen it coming.
Redfoot is their Californian connection through McManus. After they steal emeralds from a smuggler in New York—humiliating two crooked cops in the process—they fly to L.A. to sell the jewels to Redfoot, who is a "fence" (someone who buys stolen stuff). He and his crew meet them at the Korean Liberty Bell outside L.A.—and then offer to let them do a new job, stealing jewels from a smuggler named Saul Berg.
Unfortunately, this job doesn't go off as well as the first one—they end up killing Berg and his two guards, and discover that they've actually been hired to steal heroin, not jewels. Angry, they return to Redfoot, who ends up revealing that a lawyer named Kobayashi (who turns out to be Keyser Söze's representative) ordered the job. They nearly have a shoot-out with Redfoot, but tensions subside and he drives away.
And, oh—Redfoot isn't real. Verbal invented him, picking the name "Redfoot" off the bulletin board in the police station office where Kujan interrogates him. Kujan, of course, realizes this way too late.
This guy is even harder to understand that Benicio Del Toro's Fred Fenster—though, in Kovash's case, he's not to be speaking English. This Hungarian gangster is the lone survivor of Keyser Söze's dockside massacre, and he's covered in horribly disfiguring burns.
A classic "information tool" character, Kovash supplies agent Baer and agent Kujan with a crucial piece of information: Keyser Söze was at the dock, killing people. He also describes Söze to one of the doctors who sketches a picture—it turns out that it looks just like Verbal, who happens to be the real Keyser Söze.
Marquez is a stoolie—he's got dirt on Keyser Söze's true identity, and he's willing to tell it. Argentinean gangsters are selling Marquez to Söze's rivals, a Hungarian gang, who will try to use the info he gives them to bring Söze down.
But, Marquez has bad luck—Keaton and Co. kill most of the Argentinean and Hungarian gangsters on the dock, leaving room for Söze to sweep in and kill Marquez. This teaches the viewer a valuable moral lesson: snitches get stitches (unless they're snitching to the police—that's a probably good thing; just don't snitch to Hungarian gangsters).
Saul Berg's got some big, tough bodyguards—Vin Diesel looking dudes. So he thinks he's going to be safe. But he isn't.
Unfortunately for Berg, the five "usual suspects" manage to rob him in a way different from what they'd planned. They don't want to kill anyone, but things turn violent and Verbal ends up blowing Berg's brains out, after the suspects shoot the two guards dead.
Redfoot hired them to rob Berg, telling them that he was smuggling jewels—but it turned out that he was actually bringing in a case full of heroin. So, we learn that Saul Berg is really a pusher.
This jewel smuggler thought he was going to cruise into New York escorted by two police officers, have a little nosh, feed ducks in Central Park, and catch Les Miz on Broadway (probably).
Instead, the band of five criminals pens his car in and proceed to rob his emeralds, burning the car once they're finished. The smuggler and the two cops survive, though without much dignity intact.
But the successful heist pulls the "five usual suspects" closer together—they've succeeded in humiliating the cops, and have taken away some high-class loot besides.