Thursday, September 17, 2015

Theory Thursday: "The Usual Suspects" is Overrated

Kevin Spacey
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Usual Suspects turns 20 this week
Theory: The Usual Suspects is overrated

It is the movie that launched director Bryan Singer's career. The Usual Suspects was a film that became synonymous as one of the biggest success stories out of Sundance Film Festival. The name "Keyser Soze" draws a certain reaction from people: serving as both a spoiler and this ingenious plot twist. It is one of Kevin Spacey's defining roles in a period rich with amazing performances from the actor. It reinvented the crime thriller simultaneously and made us pay attention to the details in the background. To a large conglomeration, The Usual Suspects is a masterpiece of fictional narrative. It is unlikely to really be forgotten, especially with two Oscar wins under its belt. 

It is a legacy that looms over everyone who watches the film for the first time in subsequent years. People encourage you to go in without any knowledge. Fair enough. It's part of the fun to try and discover who this mob leader is. Who is Keyser Soze: a man that is spoken of, but never seen? It helped that Spacey is an unreliable narrator, planting clues that have since been lampooned by most pop culture. There's this thrill that comes from the film... in theory. My approach was uncommon. I saw the film for the first time with the knowledge at my disposal. The notion is that the movie is awful upon first going because it seems too conventional. It's the last five minutes that win you over. Knowing what to look for, I could understand what the movie was going for, and I still didn't care.

Could I enjoy it on entertainment value? For a bit, yes. Spacey was at his peak in the mid-to-late 90's. He turned in charismatic role after charismatic role. I wouldn't fault anyone who got duped by the performance. Spacey is unknowing at first, blending more in like a sidekick character forced to tell a story. However, he evolves into the unreliable narrator that comes planted throughout fiction. Deep down, he is Keyser Soze. He is making up a story based on visuals around the interrogator's office. When he walks out, it is supposed to be a grand, shocking statement. Instead, it comes across as a cheap gimmick. Soze is a con artist as well as a thief. You'd figure he would have a skill for getting out of tough spots. While it could be fun to understand how he constructed the story, what really is the point if the big catharsis is that Soze goes free and the screen writer belittles the audience by pointing out the clues you should have followed all along?

I think there's some value for noticing one banal trend of 90's movies: the twist. While it would be easy to accuse M. Night Shyamalan of succumbing to it, there's plenty of evidence that it was the environment he was raised in. Consider the great film noirish moments in cinema around that time. The Crying Game became notorious for having a transsexual lover. Fight Club featured a protagonist with a split personality disorder. The Sixth Sense was directly about a ghost and a kid. American Beauty featured Spacey being murdered by a closeted gay neighbor. While great cinema has always been reliant on some alteration to the norm, it does feel like the 90's were rampant with great films that challenged audiences to think differently. The only difference between The Usual Suspects and all of these is that the twist impacts the story directly, causing a shift in understanding that far surpasses logical understanding. Sure, great cinema doesn't need the twist, but these films earned them fair and square.

For a counterpoint, I want to acknowledge another 1995 film: Se7en. The thing that is most staggering is that they are hindered on the same twist: Kevin Spacey is the vile antagonist revealed in the third act. Se7en was released in theaters a week after The Usual Suspects, and it is likely that one could get the two mixed up because of this. In fact, it may even be fair to think that Spacey was typecast, even if the closeness in proximity makes that illogical. While both are still revered, I do think that Se7en captures everything correctly that The Usual Suspects doesn't when it comes to "the twist." It isn't enough to say "I'm the bad guy." You have to give us more substance.

Of course, this was the breakthrough film for director David Fincher, who would go on to become one of the most revered contemporaries. Coming off of the maligned Alien 3, Se7en looked to add a fierceness to the crime thriller in a period that was oddly violent thanks to other successful films like The Silence of the Lambs and Natural Born Killers. Even then Se7en has been remembered for a lot of reasons. You can appreciate any of Fincher's work on a technical level, including this film. However, that isn't the point of this piece. Though it is partially indicative of why it works.

Se7en is a sick film. The visuals will likely make you queasy if you're not into graphic crime stories. For the most part, the killer ("John Doe") is never seen, as our protagonists explore a landscape filled with deaths relative to the bible's seven deadly sins. Spacey's reveal as John Doe almost seems more anticlimactic than Keyser Soze. He simply turns himself in during the closing stretch of the investigations. Still, this is where things go from just "Oh hey, Spacey's the bad guy AGAIN" to an actual earned twist. The movie doesn't end just because they caught John Doe. We see the remaining crimes play out with John Doe providing ongoing commentary, unnerving the two police officers who survey his every move. In fact, it's a considerable amount of time before we understand what the real twist is.

You see, it was never about him being John Doe. There wasn't really any need for it. While it put a face to the sadistic uneasiness we've been in, there was no satisfaction in Spacey being John Doe like he was Keyser Soze. The real twist is that John Doe carries out his final act with the seventh deadly sin: envy. With the rest embodying clever twists, this one didn't disappoint as the police lose their minds. John Doe went personal with a death that embodied his envy for the police officer's normal life. That is what was most disturbing about John Doe. Even if he was apathetic emotionally, his crimes were indicative of who he was and what he truly wanted.

You may likely ask yourself "Why are you talking at length about Se7en? What does this have to do with The Usual Suspects?" Frankly, both films approach the twist very differently and only are similar in that they have Spacey as the villain. There isn't much else beyond the fact that I think that The Usual Suspects uses the twist as a novelty item. What value do we get out of seeing this man being an unreliable narrator? Sure, it could make you seem smart to notice that he's looking at specific portions of the wall and being sly about it, but what value does that add to his story? All we're really doing is watching a great con artist talk his way out of an arrest. That may make for a compelling concept, but the film immediately ends with Keyser Soze walking off into the sunset, lit cigarette in his mouth. We don't really know this man, nor do I care to spend much time with him.

So basically, why should anything matter? There's no payoff that follows. You may enjoy spending time with the characters, but be honest: what is exactly great about The Usual Suspects once you know the twist? We don't know what all is true and what he made up, making everything already suspect. I don't know that anything would make The Usual Suspects better if there was an additional prologue. I don't know if it would have made it better to know that the clever wordsmith was caught. However, I do know that the twist is lazy, with most of the ideas planted by a writer who couldn't work out a more clever way for his character to be unreliable. We likely could be told a million other things, and it would be viable to the twist because the writer could conveniently plant it on the wall. There's no substance there.

That is why I brought up Se7en. Yes, there is a twist that Spacey is John Doe. Had the film ended there, it likely would've been on par with The Usual Suspects' twist. However, there's a stronger sense of character in Se7en that makes more than Spacey matter. The twist is that John Doe actually impacts the lives of his victims. You don't get that in The Usual Suspects. All you get is the fact that he conned a man. There's no emotional stakes that follow. Se7en asks a lot of its viewer, making the bleak ending more bleak. I think that is what's missing from The Usual Suspects. We don't have a logical reason to care. We never did. Many feel that because it was a conventional crime film on first watch that adding barely any subtext makes it something far more enhancing. It doesn't.

This may not be the wildest, or most controversial, Theory Thursday column I have created. It's just one that has bothered me whenever someone mentions The Usual Suspects as being "good." The critics of the time, such as Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin, may seem like outliers for disagreeing with the general consensus, but I agree more with them. I don't love it when a film has "the twist" for the sake of shocking an audience. That is all I really get out of this one. It doesn't shift my views of the film before. It just makes me feel like there's a bigger, better movie that this could have fit into, much like John Doe in Se7en. It's one of those films I'm likely not to agree with most on. Also, while it shouldn't be a factor, I do think that Fincher has improved since while Singer hasn't. Maybe my bias is showing in that regards, especially since researching Fincher's technical approaches is far more interesting than Singer's. However, if you were to judge on an entertainment value, just know that the conventional crime film is just that. One twist at the end doesn't change it at all.

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