The scene looks typical enough. A tough cop, U.S. Customs Agent David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), stands in a cluttered office, glaring down at a suspect (Kevin Spacey) whom he has been grilling regarding a blown-up ship in San Pedro Harbor and 27 corpses floating at sea. The nervous suspect is Roger "Verbal" Kint, fidgeting in his chair, repeating again and again that he isn't a rat.
This crime-genre staple has played out so often over the years we can predict the dialogue before it's spoken. But this is not the usual crime drama. Suddenly, Verbal takes on an eerily confident air and casually informs Agent Kujan, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist."
That ambiguous but calculated snippet of dialogue fuels director Bryan Singer's second feature, The Usual Suspects, melds a solid crime story with an attractive subtext exploring the nature of storytelling, the power of myth, and the personification of evil. Though some viewers may not know exactly how to ingest this seemingly odd mixture, those hungry for an intelligent crime film, overflowing with mystery and drama rather than a numbing hail of bullets and bloodshed, should be thoroughly delighted.
Opting for an often-confounding story line, Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie have consciously made a genre film that entertains while challenging the viewer with a guessing game. Loaded with red herrings and vexing plot twists, Suspects recalls crime films from another era, when story -- and not body count -- was the most important part of the film. It also involves an intriguing perspective. Told almost entirely in flashback from Verbal's seemingly harmless point of view, Singer and McQuarrie invite the viewer to look beyond the text Verbal offers and to ask what is true and what is an illusion.
Queried about this aspect of Suspects, Singer confirms that the power of illusion lies at the crux of his work. "Film as a medium itself involves the difference between reality and perception," he says over the phone from his home in L.A., where he is finishing work on a new screenplay. "The reality of film is that it's just a series of still-frame images with intermittent darkness. But when you run it through the projector it becomes life. That's what's going on in The Usual Suspects -- it's all about that belief in the illusion of storytelling. In fact, it's all about storytelling."
Suspects opens with the chance meeting in New York of five ex-cons who are brought in for a lineup. The ensemble includes Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), an ex-cop turned baddie who is now trying to lead the straight life; hotheaded entry man McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and his partner, Fenster (Benicio Del Toro); Hockney (Kevin Pollack), an expert in explosives; and Kint, a partially crippled petty thief who seems out of league with these other hardened cons.
Though no charges are filed and the ex-cons are released, their time together eventually launches a successful caper to nab $3 million in gems. When the gang goes to L.A. to fence the goods, the plot thickens to a puddinglike consistency.
As Verbal recounts his tale to Kujan, Suspects cuts back and forth to the detective work taking place outside of the interrogation room (Singer and editor/music composer John Ottman brilliantly maintain an exciting pace and seamless flow, despite a script seemingly bent on drowning you in confusion). The only survivor of the destroyed ship, a badly burned Hungarian, mumbles the name "Keyser Soze" to Detective Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito), who then informs Kujan about the turn of events.
Great mysteries work incessantly on our minds, asking us to ponder the next move and leaving us clamoring for a clue that will satisfactorily resolve one aspect of the puzzle or shunt us off in a whole different direction. When "Keyser Soze" comes up, Singer carefully shrouds that name in a scary, tension-filled sequence, unleashing it as the key that will unlock the confusing game playing out before us. When Kujan steps back into the interrogation room and asks Verbal, "Who is Keyser Soze?" Suspects flies off into a new direction.
The film's second half probes the myth surrounding Keyser Soze, a man many believe to be an evil Turkish crime lord, the embodiment of the devil himself, or just a shield -- a "spook story" as Kint calls it -- various criminals use to add an ominous air to their dealings. The film progresses toward its surprising, very satisfying climax as Kint weaves his ever-perplexing tale of death and mayhem, of the gang's strings being pulled by Soze's right-hand man, Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite in wonderfully creepy performance prominently featuring his bony, deathlike visage), and of the final calamity on the boat.
As for the film's tricky and confounding plot twists, Singer admits that he wants the audience to leave satisfied but also a bit startled. "The question we as the filmmakers ask the audience is 'Who is Keyser Soze?' " remarks Singer. "And at the end, we must reveal who he is. But it doesn't end there. The question the audience then asks as they leave the theater or sit down at a restaurant is: Who is Keyser Soze?"
The Usual Suspects opens Fri, Aug. 18, at the Kabuki in S.F. and the California in Berkeley.