“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Recently, I felt the urge to slip into the neo-noir resurgence of the early/mid 90s (when the film industry was still riding waves made by Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs). Though free of the stylistic direction of Tarantino, The Usual Suspects (1995) delivers a gritty dip in the bizarre mythology of the criminal underworld. In true ‘Parker’ fashion, a group of hardened professionals make random acquaintance one night in a police line-up, and decide to embrace fate and go into business. Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), an ex-cop gone robber, proves the reluctant hold-out in a scheme that cannot proceed without him (like Richard Stark’s Parker), but he eventually surrenders to peer pressure.
As the five goons sharpen their act and embrace initial success, they’re horrified to discover the invisible strands of Keyser Soze (a legendary underboss) playing manipulator. They’re eager to distance themselves from the violent villain but they’re tragically clasped in a network of unseen players they’ve cannot hope to escape.
The Usual Suspects (1995) vs. the noir definition:
1) The Seedy Underworld
The setting is the stale savor of a career criminal’s haunts; police holding cells, hospitals, dive bars, city docks, and the jagged high-rises of the criminally organized.
2) The Anti-Hero
Each of the five brings their unique skillset to the table, but it’s Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint (Kevin Spacey) who narrates the film. Dean Keaton is the most likely cast anti-hero (as he’s the only member of the crew with a femme fatale counter-point), but I could just as easily cast Verbal in the role– stuck in muck they can’t rinse.
3) The Femme Fatale
Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis) is the only femme fatale in the film– she’s used as leverage by Keyser Soze against Dean, and thus he navigates the 5 men to his desired ends. Her screen-time is pitiful, but her impact undeniable; Dean would never do Soze’s will without the threat of harm towards the woman he loves.
No misogyny worth mentioning. (the unwitting ‘damsel in distress’ angle is a central theme yet it’s not portrayed in a demeaning way)
The entire crew wishes to be free from Soze and go about their lives; thus they’re in a constant state of trying to redeem themselves from his grasp. Additionally, Verbal (as the lone survivor) must talk is way out of lasting trouble with cops.
No eroticism worth mentioning.
7) Loss of Innocence
Soze’s story, his inception even, is born out of a horrible story that involves the raping of his wife and the killing of his children. Keyser arrives home one night to discover his family is being held hostage by some rival gang members. They’ve done unspeakable harm to his wife and terrified his children. Rather than bend to their demands, Keyser himself shoots his wife and kids, then all but one of the gang members. He left the man alive as a witness that he could not be intimidated. In the film he’s described as “a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. ‘Rat on your pop, and Keyser Söze will get you.”
8 ) Smoke
Beautiful nods to the noir genre are found in the employment of cigarettes in the script. We even get a lovely ‘flick of the cigarette to light the gasoline’ moment. Exquisite.
See Keyser Soze. This man, rather than suffer the emasculation of begging for his wife and kids, killed them himself. Juxtapose his story with that of Dean Keaton (and the other usual suspects), who were ensnared by Soze because they allowed themselves to fear for their familial relations.
“How do you shoot the Devil in the back? What if you miss?”
As a piece of noir, The Usual Suspects meets the meter beautifully in a few aspects but as a whole misses the mark. As a crime movie, it’s superb. It’s a fun film to watch, and is easily spoiled by online reviewers. So if you haven’t seen it, go watch it before you read anything else.