There’s a lot to be said about separating an artist from his or her art, especially in this age of accountability, cancel culture and viral shaming. Kevin Spacey is, by any trustworthy account, a sexual predator and pedophile worthy of his professional exile from the world of Hollywood and not entirely deserving of his legal freedom. Even here, in the Usual Suspects, his predatory behavior has been reported to have caused a brief production shutdown. But none of that made it to the audience at the time. And none of that colored how audiences viewed The Usual Suspects when it landed like a meteor among the dinosaurs in 1995, a neo-noir mystery thriller with twists, turns, double-backs, hidden meanings, red herrings and a final gotcha moment that just about nobody saw coming. A trick ending pulled off with such sublime finesse that it never felt forced or contrived or cheap, even though in less skilled hands it could have easily been all three. It’s hard to believe that a quarter-century has already passed since the release of The Usual Suspects, and its a shame that Spacey’s behavior has cast a shadow on this film, as it has on all of his work. Because The Usual Suspects isn’t just a slick caper movie with a curveball ending. It’s one of the best crime movies ever made.
The story takes place in Los Angeles, 1995. A cargo ship in San Pedro Bay is the site of what appears to be some kind of bloodbath that has left 27 guys dead, 2 gravely injured and the boat burned. One of the survivors is badly torched but professes to know who was responsible for the slaughter. The other survivor is a small-time con artist with cerebral palsy named Verbal Kint. Kint must survive an intense interrogation by U.S. Customs Agent David Kujon, who takes interest in the case because one of the dead is a hardened crook Kujon has chased for years—Dean Keaton. As Verbal tells his side of what went down—a convoluted tale of how he, Keaton and fellow thieves Todd Hockney, Michael McManus and Fred Fenster were recruited to hit the cargo ship and intercept a $91 million cocaine transaction—the details don’t all add up. Kujon is no fool, and he knows Kint isn’t telling him the whole truth. So when Kint finally breaks and admits that this entire thing involves the apex predator of crime, the mythical gangster Keyser Söze, Kujon begins to suspect that even he might have gotten more than he bargained for on this one. As stories spin within stories, one thing becomes clear: the usual suspects in this case are anything but.
It is hard to overstate just how much fun it is to watch this movie for the first time. Not only does it cruise through a screenplay written with nearly superhuman precision, but it deftly intertwines story threads into a strange quilt that is itself more lies than truth. And yet, despite all of that, the proceedings not only remain possible to follow, but they become impossible to ignore. The more we are drawn into this story within a story, as we watch Kint try to talk his way out of jail and investigators try to piece together what really happened on that boat, we find ourselves believing every word Kint has to say.
They say the heart of every magic trick is misdirection. And as Kint offers such unforgettable lines like “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” we cannot extract ourselves from Kint’s narrative long enough to question it. Kint’s other legendary line—“Keaton always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.’ Well, I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Söze.”—is our little warning that by the time this movie ends, Kint will make us believe whatever he wants us to believe.
It would be wrong to pin all of this movie on the delightfully miscreant Kint, for the rest of the characters are all terrifically crafted and played. There isn’t a weak performance in the house here. Agent Kujon grips us with the tenacity of a guy who hasn’t chased something for this far, for this long, only to be denied now. So we can forgive him when he gets rough with Kint, and when he runs out of the precinct building wondering what the hell just happened to him. He’s got the kind of blindness only a sharp-eyed man can possess. And Dean Keaton is a strangely sympathetic desperado who tried going clean but the cops wouldn’t let him. By the time he finds himself on a boat and asking for a light, within reach of the greatest treasure a crook like him could imagine, we can accept why he’s willing to keep playing a part that was written for him but not by him. He knows better than anyone that in his kind of life, there are no happy endings. Just satisfying interludes.
Even the smallest characters all have critical roles to play in a story that runs very smoothly, but is as intricate as a precision watch. Look away for a second, and you’ll miss which gear turns next. This is a movie that rewards one’s attention more than most others. And the reward is a rich one, indeed. So when the moment of truth comes, and Kujon pieces together the evidence that had been sitting in front of him the whole time, we appreciate not just a great story, but the fact that we’re now part of it, as well. Because the truth was in front of us, too. We just didn’t know where to look. And even if we did, would we have realized what we were really looking at? Probably not. That’s the Devil’s real power: to turn the true into the false. The innocent into the damned. And the damned into…well, the usual suspects.