02 January 2011

35. The Usual Suspects

Two New Year's resolutions that pertain to this blog. First, write about the films in more depth. I'm inspired by Todd Alcott and Harry Plinkett to write longer, more exhaustive pieces about these films.

Second, I plan to write these pieces more regularly so that I can finish the list by the end of the year.

So: The Usual Suspects.

A man lights a cigarette, then sets a trail of gas afire. We see it trail across a boat, some dead bodies, until a man on the upper deck pisses on it to kill the flame. The pissing man comes downstairs, confronts the smoking man, they have an exchange and the smoking man gets shot by the pissing man. There are a variety of shots of the rest of the boat -- a porthole, a stack of ropes. The pissing man climbs off the boat and we hear sirens in the distance.

This prologue does the three main things that a prologue needs to do: sets the mood/tone of the story, introduces us to the main character, and makes us want to know what happens next. The tone is that of a mystery, with crime and perhaps betrayal, as well as a bit of a noir edge. And we want to know what happens next because it seems important that a dude got killed on a boat and seemed to recognize the killer -- he calls him "Keyser" after asking him what time it is.

What happens next is:

a smoking man is telling cops/lawyers/The Man how this all started. "A truckload full of guns got stolen outside of Queens." He's in California, which we see from the seal behind him (also notice the duality theme emerging here by the framing). How did he end up there? The cops rounded up "the usual suspects" for the truck/gun robbery, starting with Stephen Baldwin.

Now begins the montage of the titular suspects. The introduction to Baldwin is exactly 10 seconds long and the very definition of economical storytelling. The cops barge in on McManus in bed (and we feel the excitement of this by nothing more than a quick dolly in), and, instead of freaking out, he ROLLS OVER. He's got bad tattoos, a week-old stubble, calls the cops "pigs" and tells them to fuck off. Within 10 seconds, we know exactly who this character is, we discover his name, and we like him for his chutzpah.

Hockney's introduction is similar. He's in a garage working on a car. Again, not freaked out by the cops, he reaches under the chassis ("what's going to happen next?"). Instead of grabbing a gun, he's wiping his face off. Their guns pointed at him result not in fear, but in a quip: "Sure you brought enough guys?" Again: in a matter of seconds we know that, unlike the blow-hard tough guy we just met, Hockney (who's name we also are able to catch) is a regular, blue-collar joe.

Switching gears, we then meet Del Toro's character in a silent scene. He's nervous, applying lip balm, grabbing his ear, putting his hands up for arrest before he needs to.

Finally, Keaton. He's in a business meeting pitching a "restaurant that will change with the times." This idea of shape-shifting is a theme in the movie: Keaton is trying to change into a legit businessman, not a criminal, Hockney is trying to act straight-and-arrow (his detailing business, not copping to the truck charges), someone is ALSO Soze. And at the end, the identity of Soze shifts from a Turkish man to Keaton, then finally to Kevin Spacey.

Anyway, the cops (who Keaton already knows) humiliate Keaton in front of his investors and bring him in, thereby meeting the main cop and who we think is the main bad guy, an aging guy who is trying to give up his life of crime (a cliche if there ever was one).

Notice: we never see Spacey get picked up by the cops. No one in the audience questions it because we've seen him already, being grilled by the cops and narrating to us.

They go in for their line-up and questioning.

Spacey, still on V.O., is there as well, even though it doesn't "make sense" for him to be there -- he's not a hardcore criminal like them. These scenes do several things: are the set-up for Spacey's handicapped limp, a visual cue that pays off in the last minute of the film; are a way to lead us off the path of thinking Kint is a bad guy ("I knew I didn't do anything they could do me for", which could have two meanings -- he's small-time; or he's so big-time he set it all up), introduces us more fully to the suspects, who we discover are funny (almost all comic relief is welcome in a serious film), and build a mythology around Keaton, who's made out to be a Big Man (Kint narrates that he was "the prize", the cops punch him, he sits apart from the others in the cell).

Here's where the meat of the red herrings come in: Keaton fakes his own death, he's trying to go straight as a businessman, avoids getting involved in McManus' new job.

The other undercurrent of this scene is: "who in the goddamn pisshell stole the fucking truck?" Hockney is later revealed to be the culprit, and watch how he avoids it throughout the cell scene: he changes the subject ("who's the gimp?"), accuses someone else, nervously rubs his face as the others discuss it.

Back to California and the boat. We see bodies, cops everywhere, the boat smoking. A new detective is on the case. Kujan comes to CA, wants to talk to Kint, exposes to us the extent of the crime: 27 men dead, a huge dope deal. The other detective visits the only survivor on the boat, now in the hospital. He's burnt, and keeps repeating a name: Keyser Soze.

Kujan gets his wish: to talk to Kint. Here's where the movie gives it away, and does so visually. What we think are simple little establishing shots showing a cluttered office and a bored criminal are instead small set-ups for tall tales. Kint is taking in details to weave his story to Kujan.

The red herrings continue, and it's smart by Kint. He throws in tons of anecdotes to confuse and annoy Kujan: picking beans in Guatamala, barbershop quartet. The coup de grace is how nervous and stupid he acts, and how he plays up his disability so much so that he drops a lighter on the floor. How hardass could he be? Isn't he the last you would suspect of being a mastermind? How underestimated is he, especially by a blowhard cop who's "smarter than you"? Finally, the last shot of the scene is the set-up for Kobayashi -- he looks up at Kujan's cup, piecing more together (which we later see in fragments at the end).

The end of the first act is here: the suspects are released from jail, Keaton's fate as a legit businessman is no more ("every investor in the city will be walking away from us"), and McManus' proposal is accepted by everyone but Keaton.

So act two begins by Kint trying to convince Keaton. They won't let Kint in without Keaton (again, shades of Kint being ineffectual), and Keaton is convinced because a) he has no legit business options and b) Kint's plan calls for "no killing."

New York's finest taxi service. Action sequence, we learn something clever (the idea that the cops collude with criminals), and fire motif continues.

They need to see their fence in CA, so away they go. But first, Keaton watches over his lady. Another red herring: we're thought to believe Keaton is in love, wants to change his ways. Kujan exposes more: Keaton was a crooked cop before he was a criminal, faked his own death. The mythology continues...

Back to the hospital, the Hungarian man mentions Soze again. The way everyone discusses Soze, we know he's a big deal.

Kujan continues about the Keaton myth. "There was a lawyer, Kobayashi."

They meet the fence Redfoot in LA. They make their exchange, Redfoot gives them another job. Again, the Keaton myth continues: Keaton killed a man in jail, Keaton only wants to do "one job."

They take the job, we see them at work. Another action sequence. It goes wrong, and Keaton, who was reluctant to kill, gets them into the jam. Kint kills Saul to make it right. Instead of being money or jewels, the briefcase is filled with dope. The job was given to Redfoot by Kobayashi, who they decide to meet.

Back to Rabin's office. Kujan and Jack Baer meet, Baer gives Kujan more info (there was no dope on the boat), tells him to mention Soze to Kint.

Midpoint. We meet Kobayashi.

A new job emerges, the story refreshes itself -- they must steal drugs from a boat (which is where we see the story end up. Again, Soze is mentioned, and he's A Big Man. Kobayashi knows everything about them (i.e., Hockney stole the truck), so they have no choice but to go along with the plan (if they know everything, they can always get to them).

And now, we get the story of Soze. Some say he doesn't exist, Kint says he's Turkish and tells a myth story about him, that he kills his family and the men who raped and tortured them. Soze is a spectre, a tall tale, a "spook story". Again, we're told -- by the guy who is actually Soze, and who is disabled -- that Soze is larger-than-life.

Fenster freaks out, leaves. They discover his body and decide to take revenge on Kobayashi, without deciding yet on taking the job. This is the classic 2nd act debate section. Kint tells Kujan that he wanted to run -- again, he's a coward -- and insults Kujan: "to a cop, everything is simple. There's no arch-criminal on the street."

So: revenge on Kobayashi. They kill his bodyguards, offer him one last chance. Then, the tables turn. Kobayashi has Keaton's lady upstairs, working on a case. The subtext is that if Kobayashi doesn't return, Finneran will be killed by her "bodyguard".

And thus, the threat of death to their loved ones makes our men decide to take the offer and they scope it out. It's Keaton's one last score, an impossible score, another big cinematic cliche. The reason these big twist movies work is they play into tropes we've seen time and time again, and once the audience is comfortable in them, the filmmakers yanks you into seeing everything a different way (see my review of THE SIXTH SENSE for another example).

Act three -- the boat heist.

The suspense works because we know they are going to kill everyone on the dock, and there's a timer on a bomb, and we cross-cut between the men, and Keaton is in the belly of the beast, surrounded by tough guys. The bomb explodes as a man lights a cigarette (more fire motif).

Hockney is shot. By who? Back to Kint. Kujan reveals that "there was no dope on that boat."

And so it is. Keaton and McManus look for it, find nothing. The suspense here rests on the question -- will they get killed searching the boat? Will they discover Soze and have it out with him?

The man on the boat, the witness Marquez, is killed.

By who? Soze? McManus is literally stabbed in the back, Kint discovers Hockney's body, "Soze" shoots Keaton.

A replay of the opening scene -- Keaton killed, the ropes, the black-clad man fleeing, flames. The implication that Kint was there watching it all.

Kujan tells Kint that Marquez was the reason they were on the boat -- it was a hit, not a dope deal. "Keaton was Keyser Soze." A twist. Everything Kujan says seems true, makes sense in a montage -- Keaton was a crooked cop who could engineer the line-up, the immunity for Kint, etc.

The sketch artist has finished their drawing of Soze from the Hungarian survivor. They fax it to Kujan as Kint leaves.

The pacing switches, slows down. Kujan sees the bulletin board that Kint took in earlier: Redfoot, Quartet, Kobayashi. We review the whole film, and the earlier set-up is paid off: Kint made it all up.

"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." And, finalizing the fire motif and the theme of duality, Kint/Soze shifts shape, lights a cigarette, and then extinguishes an imaginary flame.