Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
devincf

Episode 79: THE USUAL SUSPECTS

  

132 members have voted

  1. 1. Is THE USUAL SUSPECTS worthy of The Canon?

    • Keyser So-yay
      96
    • Keyser No-way
      36


Recommended Posts

Soft yes. It's a lot of fun, and Canon-worthy for the impact it had on the indie thriller genre, but not quite the amazing slam dunk it gets credited as.

 

Also, minor point of Northern British pronunciation - it's not Pete Postal Weight, it's Pete Possul Thwaite.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post

To me, that is not "fun", it is lazy filmmaking. There is nothing in the film that suggests this sort of choose-your-own-adventure interpretation, either. Narrative "facts" are either true or not in a story, and having a vague miasma of possible truths is even worse than saying "it was all a dream".

 

Head Spin already basically said everything I was going to say, but both the ending reveal as well as all the cop scenes set up basic facts of the story. Certain events definitely occurred. How much/little is up for interpretation, which I don't think is lazy.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post

The film goes out of its way to ensure that "large swaths" of the film aren't rendered entirely bullshit by sprinkling small truths throughout. The largest chunks of the film that could be entirely fabricated would be the counterattack on Kobayashi and Verbal's interactions with Keaton. Even removing all of that doesn't throw the film into the "lazy storytelling" realm of the cheap dream twist.

 

And the body of the film isn't anchored just in plot, but the film, more subjectively, roots the lies in the truth of the characters. There's little direct corroboration, but I believe the film means to communicate that the supporting characters of the film were as described by Kint, with the exception of himself, Kobayahsi, and the possible exception of Keaton. Verbal could easily have misrepresented Keaton just to fuck with Kujan. But either way I believe the film anchors the film in genuine characterizations as well as many concrete plot facts.

 

I appreciate your arguments, @Head Spin, but I want to correct one thing. See, I don't necessarily believe that the twist is "lazy." In fact, I think that Singer does a good job of getting us to that twist. I even like the nature of the twist, in theory. I think the twist is actively harmful.

 

First, I agree that certain elements of the story are true, but the only parts of the film that can be corroborated are the line-up and the taxi job, and only because the police were there for both of those. I'll even grant that because other, objectively existing characters were present that the events happened precisely the way they are depicted on screen.

 

The issue for me is that every other element of the film is told only through Verbal's perspective, to the point that I'm not sure that some characters even exist (i.e. "Redfoot," whose name comes from the bulletin board and whose identity is never confirmed outside of Verbal's tall tale). This lack of objective corroboration means that even if events that are depicted did "actually" happen, we as an audience have no way of knowing if they happened the way they are being shown, which harms the rest of the film.

 

To expound on this, however, I have to take a brief detour.

 

As a viewer, I can pretty much take or leave the plot. I don't actually care about what "happens." What I like about Shudder Island is that it's an exploration of a character's psychology, and the falsified bits pay off by bringing our main character around to a new mental state: DiCaprio's character goes on a journey, and remains, essentially, the same character we meet at the beginning. This allows me to invest myself in the larger philosophical question at the end of the film over whether DiCaprio's character is cured before his lobotomy. It's the characters that matter.

 

Another example: One of my favorite films is Tarsem Singh's The Fall, a film that is almost entirely a (beautifully) fabricated fantasy relayed from one character to another. Very little that happens in the film's running time actually "happens." But the story is entertaining and beautiful and is used to great effect in the "real" world of our "real" characters, whose emotional journeys are reflected by the tale. In short, the fabrications of a story need to feed into character for me to care.

 

Which brings me back to the issue at hand.

 

The Usual Suspects' twist does not allow me to invest any emotion into the characters. My desire as a viewer is not to know what actually happens vs. what is made up whole-cloth; it is to know if what happens on screen is the true course of events for these characters and if the actions those characters took were their own. The reveal suggests to me that most of what happens is an invention of Verbal Kint, further suggesting that the actions taken and dialogue spoken is also invented. I'm not interested in parsing out what is true vs. what is a lie, either; the film should tell me that itself. If Singer wants me to become invested in these characters, and I don't think that he does, then he needs to assure me that the characters whose fates he wants me to care about exist. If the plot can't be trusted, then I at least have to trust in the characters. The twist suggests they do not even exist, at least not in the way I have seen them portrayed on screen. As such, any emotional investment I have made into the film is made worthless.

 

I doubt I'm going to be able to convince you or anyone else to change their "Yes" vote to "No," but I do want to say I appreciate the discussion!

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post

I kinda hate this movie. Thin characters and a needlessly-labyrinthine plot result in a hollow experience. I find the twist a bit nonsensical, or at least pointless, as well. Just a waste. Skillfully done, technically, I guess, but ultimately a smug and showy movie about nothing. Supremely overrated.

Share this post


Link to post

Yes for me. I also had suspicions about Pete Postlethwaite being Keyser Soze when I saw this for the first time EVEN knowing the reveal at the end.

Share this post


Link to post

I'm voting yes.

 

It may be because I'm kind of sick, but I don't even really have anything to say about the movie. It held up well, and I agree with basically everything Amy and Devin said this week. I dig it.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post

I'd usually vote yes for this just for the historical importance, but I was so bored and unimpressed by this film when I first saw it that I can't possibly do so. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I hadn't known the twist was coming the whole time. Who knows? I also don't think the filmmaking helped, which I'm somewhat baffled to hear praised so much when I found it sloppy, uninventive and incredibly dated. That last point isn't necessary the film's fault, but it seems like a poor excuse for style compared to half a dozen other '90s filmmakers.

Share this post


Link to post

Back when I was subtitling films in Latin America, I had to translate this movie, which means I became completely sick of it - so I was surprised to find myself actually enjoying it this time around.

 

¿Quién es Keyser Soze?

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post

 

I appreciate your arguments, @Head Spin, but I want to correct one thing. See, I don't necessarily believe that the twist is "lazy." In fact, I think that Singer does a good job of getting us to that twist. I even like the nature of the twist, in theory. I think the twist is actively harmful

 

Thanks for the reply, thejlar. I enjoy the discussion too. It's possible that we've already reached the "agree to disagree" portion of it, so forgive me if my pressing on feels pointless.

 

It's hard for me to draw the line between when a film's made a mistake and when its content just doesn't agree with me. I'm no film critic, and I bet they have specific vocab words for it. For instance: this was my second time with this movie, and I didn't like it the first time. Last time the character of McManus was obnoxious. This time I thought it was fun and complimented the movie's tone. But in your first post you called Byrne's performance "dead-eyed," and said it did nothing for you. I was captivated the whole way through. In fact, the only way I agree with your argument in the second post about how the twist prevents emotional investment in the characters is that I did feel a little cheated in the case of Keaton. Now, I also enjoyed what it left behind, which is that Kujan's personal mystery about the character of Keaton remains unsolved, but even that may be a time when the ambiguity falls short of what a more straightforward story could have done.

 

Now, we had two opposite reactions. The McManus example of myself is a matter of my experience. I disliked it once and liked it twice. It agreed with me this time. In our Keaton example, what do we make of that? You'd call it a flaw and I'd call it a success of the filmmaking. What's a flaw and what's just "not your thing?" This question almost had me stop at "agree to disagree."

 

I don't have an answer to it. I'm fine with you not liking a movie I liked. And I don't think it "matters" on an emotional level to either of us if we disagree about how the film is flawed. But for our interest in the discussion of it, I'll continue even though it has to, by necessity, at least speculate about how you experienced a piece of art, which I don't presume to know at all.

 

 

My second post was a response to a synthesis of several points in the thread that claims that the twist was an example of "weak construction." Someone else called it lazy, not you. But you said that "Singer essentially ends his film with “It was all a dream,” one of the worst ways to end anything." That bit of it was for you.

 

I'd like to keep it to your second post, but we butt up against that "flaw vs. experience" problem (I really wish I knew how to describe that better). You say that the twist hurts the film, and you disagree in two main ways.

 

First you say that so much of the film's content is from Verbal's perspective that those huge sections of the film are rendered pointless, or at least impossible to care about without any anchors of corroboration. I just don't see how the film's ambiguity about the truth makes it less interesting. You liked the Shutter Island twist because it explored and expressed DiCaprio's mind. I like The Usual Suspect twist because it's a functional creation of Verbal Kint. It's his own work and his own mental expression knit together from bits of truth and lie and names from a cluttered bulletin board. Even if it contained none of the truth - and it's silly to think that he didn't use portions of real events for his con - it's interesting in either case because it's something he thought up for Kujan. You're not meant to have solved the mystery at the end, you're meant to have enjoyed finding a new one in the exact same place. We know something happened, and it's interesting even if Kint (for some reason) avoided 100% of the truth in his testimony.

 

But that's minor to your second point, where you claim that the twist precludes the viewer from investing emotionally in the characters, since they're pretty much all within the Verbal testimony zone.

 

Now this doesn't just make me think "I don't know what to say, I was invested before and after the twist." Having read both of your posts it leaves my totally unclear about how you felt about The Usual Suspects. In your first post you run it down pretty thoroughly. First you run down the construction of the plot and the twist. Then you run down the cinematography as vacant and poorly lit, and usually guilty of poor camera placement. Finally you run down the "atrocious" performances, ending with Baldwin's (after stopping yourself from running down the script too). Actually you say that Baldwin's character and performance undermine the plot which undermines the twist. You even go on to reemphasize in the second post that "As a viewer, I can pretty much take or leave the plot. I don't actually care about what 'happens.'" You couldn't be more clear that this film failed on every level for you. But your first post, on its face, is fine. I disagree almost entirely, but you give examples, and it's as fair to claim flaws in a film as it is for me to claim strengths in them a few posts later.

 

But in this second post your respond to me defending the quality of the twist, and elaborate on how it "harms" the film, by claiming that the twist makes the characters impossible to invest in by eliminating proof of their actions. You can't argue to me that the twist harms investment in the characters when you personally claim that the performances, script, and characterizations turned you all the way off before the twist. You specifically say that a character (Baldwin) ruins the plot, and then turn it around to say the plot ruins the characters in this second post.

 

If you were loving the movie up until the twist and felt betrayed by it then fine. If you knew the twist going in and it made it hard for you to get into it then fine. But you couldn't be clearer that these characters repelled you. This movie repels you. You can't claim to me that the movie's twist harms investment in the characters when I was invested throughout and you were uninvested throughout. That's not a flaw, that's a difference in reaction. And that's fine, but that's not the movie's problem. I think this movie either has you or it doesn't. And although the 2:1 voting in the film's Canon favor shouldn't be considered evidence in a discussion, it makes it hard to believe all of your points about how the film makes it impossible for people to invest. They did.

 

The bottom line is this: As an outsider, I'm taking both of your posts together and getting the impression that you're mistaking your bad experience with this film for flaws within the film. And I'm sure as hell not saying that this film's flawless because holy shit; nor am I saying that you're wrong top to bottom. But I think somewhere you crossed the line from fairly to unfairly critiquing the film on its merits. It's fair to not like this film at all, but it's unfair to paint this film as so extremely flawed and in contradictory ways. I stand by my defense of this movie and of the twist's strong construction.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post

I think it's a fine movie, but there's nothing for me here that makes it canonworthy. It's interesting that the line-up scene was conceived differently than the guys cracking up, because I think that's by far the best scene of the movie. There's a spark there that the rest of the movie not only lacks but kind of destroys. Does anybody care when Kevin Pollak gets shot? The movie doesn't seem to. It just seems to be moving chess pieces. And that's how it feels throughout the film. The first heist, the attack on Kobayashi. I feel no fun, no tension.

 

Also a more plotbased issue I had. Why go through all the trouble of killing the one guy who knows what you look like and totally reveal yourself in the process? Congratulations, now the police totally know Keyser Soze is real and that he looks like Kevin Spacey. It doesn't really make sense as far as I can tell.

Share this post


Link to post

I'm torn about The Usual Suspects. Although I know it is an exceptionally enjoyable film, and infintely re-watchable, i still cant get over what I believe was a cheat at the end.

 

On my first viewing, I walked out of the theater thinking that even though I enjoyed the film, I felt duped. The RESULT of the duplicicity is completly perfect, but the facts leading to that reveal screwed with me. The stuff that stuck with me about the bulletin board and office materials reveal was less about changing names (like Kobayashi, since that person existed) and more like the barbershop quartet in Skokie, IL, which doesnt reference anything at all, and, as JLAR referenced, the question of Redfoot's existence. If Redfoot is just different name, then that could be OK, but is it possible he doesn't exist at all? We'll never know. And I don't need the answer, it's that the question leads to other questions, which leads to what in Verbal's story matters and what doesn't?

 

Listening to this podcast, it led me to remember another film that gave me this same feeling as I watched the end unfold and would follow me out of the theater and forever after: The Perfect Storm. Just as the end of Usual Suspects made me feel as though everything I had seen was a lie, Perfect Storm was an actual lie. (Spoilers on 16 yr. old film) How can there be any story after they leave the port if no one survived?

 

So, these two very well made films, which are very easy to watch and enjoy, are still based on lies. And in The Usual Suspects case, the twist relies on unreliable information. So for me this film will always be saddled with that bad feeling, which ultimately means I have to vote No.

 

And I'll probably shit blood tonight.

 

Edited to add: The Usual Suspects is streaming now on Netflix.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post

YES to The Canon.

 

And anyone who thinks the movie was all a "dream" or a "waste" has completely misunderstood the movie. (And no, we don't know for sure who Keyser Soze is. If we did, THAT might ruin the movie. I think Kobayashi works for Keyser Soze and "Verbal Kent" is Soze, but that relationship could be reversed and it would still work...which is part of the genius of this movie.)

Share this post


Link to post

Definitely all-time Canon based on intrinsic quality and not just dubious "historical importance".

 

I love that Devin commented on the Oswald line… it's such a perfect line that it will still pop up in my head, I just wish he didn't say 'fag' so I could actually share the line.

Share this post


Link to post

I disagree with Devin and Amy on this movie -- I certainly don't hate it, but it doesn't hold up on rewatching -- but I wanted to mention that I appreciated Devin's side commentary on the "burn it all down" folks this election season.

Share this post


Link to post

This was a formative film for me as a kid; I had stacks of VHS tapes from movies recorded from TNT, USA, TBS... The Usual Suspects was one of those movies, and I watched it totally blind with zero knowledge that the film even HAD a big twist ending. I still remember those final moments absolutely bowling me over, my jaw hanging open during the entirety of the end credits. It absolutely blew my mind. I considered it my favorite movie for a while in junior high/high school.

 

Years down the road, I'd seen the (uncut) version several times, and the film had really just lost its luster in my eyes. It eventually reached the point where I dismissed it completely as being cheaply shocking in service of a twist that renders the film pointless. I wrote off my love of the film as the crazed obsessions of a kid who was still developing taste and understanding of film craft. I was over it.

 

Having listened to the episode and re-watched film the film this week, I've completely changed my tune.

 

It's a GREAT movie. An iconic movie. A defining movie for Spacey, the 90's, the crime genre, and the pop culture lexicon.

 

Absolute yes for the Canon.

Share this post


Link to post

Yay.

 

My initial thought was 'nah.' Watched it last year and thought it hadn't aged well, but maybe I was letting my disappointment with Singer's later output cloud my judgement.

 

But both of Devin and Amy's arguments swayed me. Well reasoned.

 

(And Amy is SUPER wrong about X-Men Apocalypse - it's an abomination.)

Share this post


Link to post

Yes!!!

 

So, so glad Devin & Amy dug this movie as much as I do. A lot of movies when you know the twist they fall apart or don't lend themselves too well to repeat viewings. In this one, the twist breaks the movie wide open to discussion and interpretation (Devin's Kobayashi/Keyser Soze theory is further proof of that). And beyond that, the movie is just so well made and entertaining as hell. It's immensely watchable and quotable (it's one my friends and I constantly throw around lines from) and just such a well constructed piece of cinema.

Share this post


Link to post

(And Amy is SUPER wrong about X-Men Apocalypse - it's an abomination.)

No no the Abomination was the one with Ed Norton.

Share this post


Link to post

I thought about this all week and never came to vote because I knew I couldn't vote. Not that this website means anything. But I acted like i mattered. t knew the movie would make it, and that's probably deserved because the movie was a big deal at the time.

 

But I think the movie is so overrated. I came to the podcast with some hope that at least one of them would discuss the weaknesses in the movie. It was the most painful Canon podcast I've listened to. I kept cringing. At least the compliment of "impeccable" was not quite delivered.

 

I could type pages and pages but I'll summarize by saying that I think the plot is muddled and weak and the twist is an excuse so that the plot can get away with being muddled. I love crime movies, especially caper movies. This isn't a good one. When you reveal how the caper went down, you want all the pieces to fit. The pieces don't fit in this one but we can't criticize the writer because it was all fake. Honestly the remake of the Thomas Crown Affair is better! The writing in movies matters so much more to me than visuals. I couldn't believe when this won best screenplay. This deserves to be in the Canon just because it made so many people believe it was smart.

 

I like the way they reveal the twist and love when Kevin Spacey does the walk. It's a really good few minutes. And I like all the main actors. That's why the movie was profoundly disappointing to me when I saw it on opening night all those years ago. (I've watched it since, more than I should, just because it blows my mind why people love it so.)

Share this post


Link to post

It's funny to me how some people hook things on the line up. That's the most unlikely part of the movie. How did a criminal mastermind get the customs agents to arrest those four people and put them in a line up? yes, without the "twist" it would be a funny moment because then you've got the police putting people who look nothing like each other in a line up, and it gives the title of the movie meaning. But if there's a criminal mastermind behind it, then that's one of the only verifiable parts, and the criminal mastermind went to a lot of effort to get those people arrested and held in jail together, and released together. And then we get all the other nonsense to get them to go to LA when surely it would have been easier to just kill the guy he wants killed. But if the movie had shown us how he got the customs agents to arrest them, etc., it might have been more interesting.

 

I think we have to believe that Kevin Spacey is the criminal mastermind because of the sketch from the witness (and because the movie would be even more infuriating if that's a lie). So again why did he go to such elaborate lengths only to leave himself at the scene where he gets arrested and ultimately escapes by only seconds with the customs agents and FBI knowing what he looks like and having spent ages talking to him. Instead of him having the guy killed and blowing things up so maybe no one knows what happened, he picks the dumbest and most unnecessarily risky and flagrant way to get the deed done. For that to be clever, you would need to explain why that was the only way he could kill the guy he wanted killed. but that wasn't the plot. I don't know if I've ever been so mad at a movie. :P

Share this post


Link to post

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×