I do not feel I am overstating my case when I say that The Usual Suspects is a cinematic masterpiece. It is the amazing combination of an intriguing plot, colorful characters, and superb cinematography that make this easily one of the most memorable movies in recent memory. But regardless of whether you find the entertainment value of the flick to be as high as I personally did, you cannot help but appreciate the way these three factors intertwine to produce an ending that is exciting, unexpected, and rather perplexing. For it is the way the writer and director navigate these fascinating characters, and us viewers, through this crazy plot line, only to end at a point far different from where it seemed you were heading at any time that makes this movie.
Writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer present the viewer with the story's main mystery in the very opening scene. For without an introduction, besides the disorienting subtitle that this happened last night, the movie opens on a burning boat in a harbor. The first character we see is the slumped over Dean Keaton, waiting to die. Then down comes this mysterious figure, cloaked in black, and speaking in muffled tones. Keaton addresses the man as "Keyser" and then asks what time it is. After a quick check of his gold watch and the light of his cigarette, the dark one lifts up his gun and fires. Dropping his cigarette in a line of gas, the boat explodes seconds later as the camera focuses in on a stack of barrels and ropes.
What this first scene does is provide the viewer with one big question: what just happened? As the movie progresses the set-up of the scene slowly plays out in front of us in logical order. But there remains one major detail left out, who exactly is this dark man, whom we come to know as Keyser Sozé? This character, easily one of the classics of all time, remains a conundrum until the very end scene, in which not only his identity, but also a more complete version of the story is revealed in another classic cinematic moment, the final montage.
Where McQuarrie and Singer are so successful is how they lead the viewer into contemplating one of two theories, only to have both prove false. Through plot twists, character development, and excellent use of cinematography even the most discerning viewer falls into the trap. The first side is the belief that Keyser Sozé is really some sort of almost mythical character, the "mastermind behind the streets," whose role in this movie will be dominated more by his lack of presence than the real thing. The second and equally supported idea is that of Keaton being Keyser Sozé.
We first analyze the Keaton theory, which is immediately contradicted by the opening scene. But it is our lack of a true understanding of what we saw that forces us to be weary of ruling out any possibilities. Accepting that, the Keaton theory is quite a solid one. The case begins in the holding cell, when we first see our band together. It seems they only know each other's reputations, and act upon that. The mild shock and disbelief expressed be these hardened criminals at the fact that "Dean Keaton has hung up his spurs" establishes for the audience that this Keaton is known, and known as a criminal. Upon their release, Keaton walks out with his love interest, Edie Finneran, and is closely watched by all the others, again presenting his importance.
Next we begin to see our friend Keaton as the tough guy, but only for a second. When Verbal Kint, a weak defenseless cripple, goes to see him, he roughs him up a bit. Yet, in just a few scenes another contradiction is seen, as Keaton expresses remorse at having to jump town without being able to say goodbye to Edie. But it is not very long before Agent Kujan clears things up a bit. By quickly running through Keaton's history, the indictments, the cover-ups, the prison time, the faked death, the lost witnesses, his image is brought back into that shady realm. Shortly thereafter, a quick almost inaudible exchange between Keaton and Redfoot again reinforces his