The Usual Suspects came out in 1995, the year of Kevin Costner’s critical downfall with Waterworld and Pixar’s rise to fame with Toy Story. The Usual Suspects is often lauded as Bryan Singer’s best film and Christopher McQuarrie’s masterpiece. Its surprise ending is most often commented upon, followed by Kevin Spacey’s performance, Benicio Del Toro’s accent, and the memorable lineup scene. The Usual Suspects is one of those movies that is on one hand beloved and on the other hand often nitpicked. Even those who don’t readily identify with the film should recognize that it belongs in the must-see canon. Any movie that has the balls to tell a story largely based on a rumor of a ghostlike villain so terrifying his mere name inspires horror at the very least deserves to be seen.
Audiences will recognize they are in for something very different within the first few scenes of The Usual Suspects, which opens with a killing on a burning ship and moves quickly into a narrative by petty criminal Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). Kint is the only witness to the ship fire and is thus crucial to the cops on the case (Giancarlo Esposito and Chazz Palminteri). As Verbal begins to tell his story, the audience witnesses an untidy tale strung together through a series of flashbacks.
Verbal's story begins with a line-up. A truck gets hijacked outside Queens, and the cops line the room with five felons. Why? That’s the question on criminal-turned-businessman Dean Keaton’s (Gabriel Byrne) mind. It has to be a shakedown, a grasping of straws by local cops trying to please the feds. Regardless, criminal Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin) thinks they owe it to themselves to salvage a little dignity. He has a guy on the inside. He knows about a high-risk, high-payoff scheme to throw a middle finger up at the cops and get rich in the process. It takes some convincing, but eventually all five felons (including Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, and Spacey) are in for the job, which leads to more jobs, which leads to the smoldering boat, $91 million dollars of missing dope, and a ghost story about a man named Keyser Söze. The Usual Suspects isn’t a story about what happens; it’s about why what happens happens. If this sounds a little dense, it’s because it is.
Luckily, The Usual Suspects shines when it's at its most dense. Most of the dialogue, especially in the scenes with our five con men, plays out so quickly it’s tough to keep up. It doesn’t help that Benicio Del Toro’s character, Fred Fenster, lays on an accent so thick it's nearly unintelligible. Singer also makes a big deal about playing out moments in the shadows. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors, both figurative and literal, and many scenes are so dark it almost seems we might miss something. This is a film that takes several re-watches before it can fully be appreciated. Just like pot, if we give up after the first try, we might never get what the deal is.
The quote most often pulled from The Usual Suspects is, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” It’s a sharp line that works perfectly into the script in the moment it plays out, and is a nice quote to pull out at the beginning or end of DVD reviews. However, the more astute quotation comes only a few lines later, as our narrator, Verbal Kint, describes a villainy that doesn’t thrive on guns or money. “You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t,” Kint says, and suddenly the legend of Keyser S¨ze is born. Sixteen years after its inception, The Usual Suspects is a testament to doing what the other guy wouldn’t. With its shadow play, its verbally heavy script, and against-the-grain performances, The Usual Suspects isn’t the usual movie fodder.
The biggest question we should ask with this release is why another Blu-ray edition when one came out last year? Sure, this one is nicer -- pricier -- there’s a full-color photo book accompanying the set, replete with critical essays, character biographies for all of the main actors, and some random trivia. However, there are no special features on the actual disc, and it's not like we didn’t already have several Blu-ray editions to choose from. If they really wanted to get fancy with this, they should try to get a Criterion release.
If you haven’t watched The Usual Suspects on Blu-ray, all of the dark and shadowy aspects are less prominent. The Blu-ray version is shinier, brighter. There is nothing left to chance in the shadows. I think it actually helped The Usual Suspects that scenes in the film were dark on home televisions prior to the Blu-ray release. It doesn't make a huge difference, but I really missed the grainy, gritty quality of the DVD copies. This new bullshit is too glossy.