The most unnerving -- and delectable -- skill of film noir masters such as John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Jules Dassin may have been the way they turned all of human relations into a slippery fiction, a pack of lies, an extended alibi. In the dangerous netherworld of these movies, no love was true, no emotion sound, no motive pure. Black bird statuettes were not what they seemed; alliances were made of air; and Barbara Stanwyck always had another dirty trick rolling around in her head.
More effectively than any other recent film, Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects restores the dark glory that film noir enjoyed in the 1940s, then presses on into uncharted territory.
Just to start, it's a smart, multilayered crime thriller in which mysteries beget puzzles, and puzzles beget riddles, while the vaguely bewildered audience is yanked along by the scruff of its unwashed neck toward a final solution. But that's not all. Such fluent exemplars of Nineties neo-noir as John Dahl's The Last Seduction and Stephen Frears's The Grifters also knew how to play the game, but they didn't dare to change the rules. Director Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie do. They take us not only into the gnarled world of five career criminals high on greed, but they venture into the realm of contemporary meta-fiction, where unreliable narrators, misleading flashbacks, and linguistic trickery question the authenticity of human motives as well as the nature of narrative itself. Complex Forties masterpieces such as The Big Sleep and Brute Force toyed with such possibilities, and gifted hipster Quentin Tarantino messes with our sense of morality, but The Usual Suspects may be the first truly postmodern film noir. Happily, the lab experiment also works beautifully as dangerous, bloody melodrama.
Singer and McQuarrie (whose first collaboration was 1993's Public Access) have set their tangled tale in two cities and two frames of time. It opens in San Pedro, California, south of Los Angeles, where a boat supposedly containing $91 million worth of cocaine suddenly explodes in a fireball. Twenty-seven people die A leaving only a scorched Hungarian gangster and a gimpy New York City con man named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) to explicate the crime to the police, led by U.S. Customs agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). But then the filmmakers transport us to New York, six weeks earlier, where they unload the remainder of the nefarious cast upon us: Someone has hijacked a truck full of gun parts, and the authorities -- rather mysteriously -- round up five authentic felons for a lineup.
Quite a group, too. Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) is an ex-cop turned polished swindler and killer, now supposedly gone straight. McManus (Stephen Baldwin) is a marksman who's wound too tight. The all-but-indecipherable Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) seems to be from another planet. Hockney (Kevin Pollak) sulks and simmers. Verbal's there too, jailhouse-hardened but twitchy. Stuck overnight in a cell together, the unholy quintet bickers and snipes and eventually does what bad guys do best -- plans another job, involving a cache of emeralds.
But forget the emeralds. Forget the hijacked gun parts. Forget the N.Y.P.D.'s high-profit "taxi cab" service for drug lords. You might even do well to forget all that cocaine that Kujan spends so much time grilling Verbal about later. These disparate elements all work themselves into the plot, and into our swimming heads, but so does an unseen force named Keyser Soze -- a master criminal so brutal that even the old pros wince at his name. Although no one is sure he even exists, Keyser Soze, they say, butchered his own family rather than give in to rivals, and he knows everything about everyone, can do anything to anyone.
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Meanwhile we know lots of nothing as The Usual Suspects careens forward with us firmly in its grip. The interrogation room scenes, in which Palminteri works over Spacey (or does he?), are as vivid and intermittently funny as anything you'll see at the movies all year, and the puzzle pieces so artfully scattered throughout this uncommonly clever movie will keep all but dolts on the edge of their seats. This is confident moviemaking, arrogant even: We often lose our way in a thicket of motives and turns, but the picture never does. The same, of course, can't be said for all the great films noirs of the Forties. In the end our attentions are rewarded with one, or two, or three of the loveliest -- that's the word, even in a thing so brutal -- twists of plot you can imagine, capping off a movie that might change the way we think about movies.
The acting is uniformly engaging, Singer's atmosphere is unfailingly treacherous, and the involutions of McQuarrie's dizzying plot send charges like adrenaline through the nervous system. It is only afterward, in fact, that you realize, joyously, that the structure of the movie is just as complex as its rich labyrinth of plot and character. And what could feel better, half a century after a great genre hit its peak, than fumbling again through the dark of life's awful fiction, toward a single, grimy crack of light?
Our best advice: See it twice.