Study Guide

The Usual Suspects Themes

  • Criminality

    Does crime pay? The Usual Suspects seems to suggest that it doesn't—unless you're a super master-criminal like Keyser Söze, in which case the answer is: yes.

    The other criminals have a tendency to wind up dead. They get dragged into a police lineup, are manipulated by Redfoot, and finally die in a massacre at the port, killed by the very man who hired them—Söze.

    But Söze effortlessly toys with everyone in the movie, dispatching his enemies with the same ease you'd pop candy out of a Pez dispenser. So, unless you're the kind of ruthless killer who will shoot his whole family to prove a point, it's best to avoid getting into this kind of drug-related criminal kerfuffle.

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Do the criminals in the movie all get what they deserve?
    2. Does the movie portray the police as being morally superior to the criminals or not? Explain.
    3. Who are we meant to root for in the movie? A criminal like Verbal, or U.S. Customs Special Agent Kujan? Or is it possible to root for both on different levels? Explain.
    4. Is there any "honor among thieves" in this movie? Do any of the criminals manage to remain loyal to each other or are they all inherently selfish?

    Chew on This

    The criminals in The Usual Suspects break the law because they want money—it's all about getting rich.

    The criminals don't mind getting rich, but their deepest motive actually involves taking shots at authority and asserting their own freedom by flouting the law.

  • Good vs. Evil

    There's a pretty heavy accent on evil in The Usual Suspects. And goodness? Not so much.

    Sure, technically David Kujan's one of the good guys, but he's a little bullying and unappealing—the audience's sympathies are lodged with timid, little Verbal…who turns out to be something other than timid.

    The arch-criminal Keyser Söze is an evil legend, but he also feels like an avenging angel. He pays back criminals and bad guys for their sins, in a way—even though Söze is obviously involved in those sins himself (organized crime, drug dealing, etc.) To hear Verbal tell it, Söze is so bad he's like the devil—an ace of evil who flourishes by convincing the world that he doesn't exist.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Are there any good guys in this movie? If you had to pick one, who would it be? Explain.
    2. Who is the most evil character in the movie? How does Söze's brand of evil differ from that of Keaton and the other criminals—if it does? Explain.
    3. Does evil triumph over good in this movie, or is there another way of explaining what happens?

    Chew on This

    Keyser Söze represents an almost-supernatural form of evil—going far beyond the normal run of criminals.

    Keyser Söze portrays himself as a mythical embodiment of evil in order to shroud his own real, mundane identity in mystery and doubt, protecting it from view.

  • Lies and Deceit

    There's a massive lie that structures this whole movie—we wouldn't have The Usual Suspects if it wasn't for one big twist, based on deceit.

    We realize from the beginning that Verbal might not be a reliable narrator and that he might be covering for Keaton or leaving things out of the story. But, after he finishes his story, and Kujan has his unpleasant revelation at the bulletin board, we realize just how much an unreliable narrator can mess with a story or alter our perceptions.

    Verbal doesn't just deceive Kujan—he deceives the audience…which is what makes The Usual Suspects so much fun.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Why does Kujan fail to see through Verbal's lies?
    2. What does Verbal do to make his deceitful words more convincing?
    3. How much of Verbal's story do you think was really true and how much do you think was false? Be specific.
    4. What hurts Kujan more—his skepticism of Söze or his willingness to believe in his theory about Keaton? In other words, can the will not to believe something be just as damaging as the will to believe something?

    Chew on This

    The Usual Suspects teaches us to be more skeptical of narrators and to look beneath the stories they're telling for secret motives.

    The Usual Suspects teaches us not to be skeptical—because it encourages us, in the end, to believe in a legendary figure, Keyser Söze. It actually argues against our will to disbelieve, and to consider more startling explanations.

  • Manipulation

    Never try to manipulate a manipulator, because guess what? You just end up getting manipulated.

    That's what happens to David Kujan—he thinks he's pressuring Verbal Kint into telling him the truth about what a vicious criminal mastermind Dean Keaton is. But, in reality, something very different is going on.

    We discover that certain tactics of manipulation are more useful than others. Kujan comes on very heavy-handed, yelling threats…and that doesn't fly. Verbal, on the other hand, takes a subtle approach—he wants to make Kujan think that he (Kujan) is the manipulator, when he's really the manipulated.

    So, if you ever want to manipulate someone, try to be more like Verbal. (Although we don't think that's the #1 lesson you should draw from The Usual Suspects.)

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. How does Kujan try to manipulate Verbal? Why does he fail?
    2. In the story Verbal tells, do the different criminals attempt to manipulate each other? Explain your answer.
    3. What's the best way to manipulate someone? Does anyone in the movie use this method?
    4. Can you manipulate someone in ways that don't involve using words? Does anyone in the movie use any non-verbal forms of manipulation? (Examples from inside the story Verbal tells also count—involving Keaton and the others.)

    Chew on This

    The Usual Suspects demonstrates that the best way to manipulate someone is to get them to give you their confidence. Kujan doesn't believe Verbal's telling the truth, but he believes Verbal is weak and less intelligent than him—and Verbal allows and encourages him to believe that.

    The movie also argues that the threat of brute force is never a good manipulation technique. You have to be subtle—and that's the big difference between Verbal and Kujan.