The Usual Suspects was a career-defining movie both for Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey, the film even earned Spacey his first Academy Award, and The Usual Suspects ending may be one of the best in film history. However, justifiably the film feels tainted with both men’s alleged sexual misconduct now casting a major shadow on both of their careers.
The idea of separating the art from the artist is a difficult concept and more complex than just pretending like a work of fiction exists in a vacuum. However, for this piece, I will only be focusing on The Usual Suspects as a film and what Singer, Spacey, and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie did when creating this slick, unforgettable noir.
Christopher McQuarrie created such a complex script that it’ll probably take a million viewings to catch every detail and nod the screenwriter gave to the film’s final trick, but let’s look at some of the major ways the movie teases The Usual Suspects ending.
Spoilers Ahead: I will be discussing the plot and ending of The Usual Suspects**.**
What Happened At The End Of The Usual Suspects?
Roger “Verbal” Kent (Kevin Spacey) leaves the police precinct after telling his version of what happened the night that Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), and Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) died along with 24 other men. Prior to this night, the men formed a heist group and were sent on a mission by the mysterious (and very dangerous) Keyser Söze to retrieve some drugs to stop Argentinian and Hungarian gangsters from doing business that could rival Soze’s own drug business. However, that wasn’t his real intentions, Söze sent Keaton and the other men on this mission so that he could kill a man that the Hungarians bought who could identify and destroy Söze.
Police officer Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) puts all the clues together. He realizes that the mysterious Keyser Söze is really Keaton. He used the guys to kill the rat who could identify him as Söze. As we watch Verbal leave, seemingly distraught over Keaton’s supposed betrayal, scenes flash between Kujan looking at a bulletin board in Sergeant Jeff Rabin ( Dan Hedaya)’s office and Verbal’s departure. Kujan realizes that many of the details Verbal gives him can be found around Rabin’s office and the bulletin board. It clicks that Verbal is actually Keyser Söze.
Kujan rushes out to stop Verbal, just as viewers watch Verbal lose his limp, change his dominant hand and smoke a cigarette with the gold lighter that we saw the Söze figure with earlier in the movie. He then gets in a car with Söze’s associate and lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite).
How Verbal Tricked The Audience
The Usual Suspects shows viewers the truth within the opening scenes, then it spends the rest of the film trying to convince them something else may have happened. A careful viewing of The Usual Suspects presents a lot of ways that the film tells the audience that Verbal Kent is Keyser Söze. Like usually when Keyser Söze is mentioned, the next scene is of Verbal, or the shock in Keaton’s eyes the moments before Söze kills him. One huge hint is his name.
On the DVD commentary, Bryan Singer points out that Verbal mentions Söze’s parents being German and Turkish, a rough translation, combining German and Turkish, of Keyser Söze means King Blabbermouth, a nod to Roger Kent’s nickname “Verbal.” He even mentions the nickname being given to him for talking too much.
Verbal makes you care about him by coming off as this weak, empathetic character. Even the way, Verbal is framed in most of the scenes, like an observer instead of an active participant -- likely also done to show how Verbal is probably making up his involvement in these scene -- makes him seem regretful of his actions, unlike everyone else involved. Viewers are manipulated into feeling sorry for Verbal.
The choice to cast Kevin Spacey in this role was also to help bamboozle the viewers into trusting his version of events. In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Christopher McQuarrie shared this about Spacey as Söze:
We knew that casting him as Keyser was key, that an educated audience would see a name actor coming from the first act. That is the real trick behind Suspects, I think. People subconsciously dismissed Kevin. An actor they didn’t recognize would never be revealed to be the villain behind it all.
Verbal’s Story Inconsistencies
Verbal’s stories have many holes in them. The final story about the boat heist reveals the most issues with Verbal’s lies, like how he told the Defense Attorney one thing but tells Kujan something else. He says he never saw Keaton die to the DA, but now he saw a slim figure shoot him. Verbal also claims to be hiding behind the ropes watching Keaton die, but viewers see that no one is there to witness the death. There are also conversations shown that Verbal couldn’t have been around to witness, like the one between Keaton and Edie (Suzy Amis) after he’s released from the lineup.
Verbal’s entire image of Keaton doesn’t quite make sense when compared to how Kujan describes him. Kujan sources several incidents that paint Keaton as this ruthless corrupt ex-cop who killed so many people and faked his own death, but Verbal's version of Keaton is compassionate, nice, and empathetic. Yes, Verbal paints this nice picture of Keaton mainly so Kujan will believe it was Keaton who tricked Verbal, but there is a possibility that Verbal’s real interactions with Keaton were limited and he never quite got a full picture of his personality and how to portray him to the police. Verbal’s story inconsistencies are classic symptoms of unreliable narrators.
The inconsistencies in Verbal’s stories are intentional, and not just a screenwriting error, as McQuarrie adds in his Creative Screenwriting interview:
Suspects is what it is because we never stopped to consider the audience as anything but people who loved film as much as we did, who were meticulously anal about detail and ripped films to pieces.
McQuarrie even mentions having everyone that he could look over the script, so that he could answer every reader's questions. He and Singer wanted to leave little room for error.
What Were Keyser Söze’s True Intentions?
When Verbal tells the story about Keyser Söze killing his entire family, and then hunting down all the men that contributed to their death and tried to bring down his empire, he mentions Söze killing thieves who stole from him. When McManus, Hockney, Keaton, Verbal, and Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro) first meet Kobayashi, he mentions all the ways they have each stolen or stopped some form of Söze’s business.
I believe that that part of Verbal’s story is true (except the part involving him of course). He targeted these four men because they have hurt his business and he wants to kill them, and get rid of them as nuisances. I also believe that Keaton was involved because he knew he could pin everything on him.
Söze even matches the details of Keaton’s fake death with his real one (fire and trying to stop someone who could destroy him). He knew the cops hated Keaton and Kujan would specifically want to nail him for this crime, as he was the one to arrest him at the New York lineup. We know the whole real mission was to kill the rat who could bring Söze down, so that was the main goal.
I believe his intentions for spinning this story to Kujan was just for amusement purposes. Söze tells Keaton that he likes cops and even wanted to be one, but all his actions in the past indicate a major resentment towards them. He even tells a story about how Keaton and the boys brought down corrupt cops just to stick it to them. He knows Kujan believes himself smarter than Verbal and Söze, so I think he does this just to embarrass Kujan, just to show him how much smarter he is than him. It’s his final middle finger to the cops, which he has been giving them all movie.