|Usual Suspects, The (Special Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 02 April 2002|
In the nearly seven years since its theatrical release, "The Usual Suspects" has developed a mystique rivaling that of its possibly mythical central figure, the legendary Keyser Soze. A thriller that piles twist upon twist, it ends on a note of such ambiguity that even the cast members (according to the filmmakers’ comments on the DVD) couldn’t agree on who was really doing what. Certainly seeing the movie on repeat viewings adds many clues and layers without making the experience any less enjoyable – if you’re in the mood for a contemporary tough-guy crime thriller with no real heroes, "Usual Suspects" satisfies time and again. Writer Christopher McQuarrie got an Oscar for his original screenplay and it’s easy to understand why, as the writing holds up when on additional visits. The movie also helped propel the career of Kevin Spacey (who took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) to the next level, and it boasts a bunch of other terrific performances from Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palmintieri and Pete Postlethwaite – and that’s just the main cast.
"Usual" starts with a catastrophe in a shipyard, then moves back and forth in time between the interrogation of sad-faced, handicapped survivor Verbal Kint (Spacey) and events leading up to the massacre. Five veteran criminals – Kint, Keaton (Byrne), Hockney (Pollak), McManus (Baldwin) and partner Fenster (Del Toro) – are brought for a police line-up in New York. Sprung by Keaton’s lawyer/lover (Suzy Amis), the quintet pull off a heist – and then are contacted by enigmatic lawyer Kobayashi (Postlethwaite) who represents the possibly fictional but nevertheless feared Keyser Soze. Kobayashi informs the quintet that their police station meeting was no accident, but was rather engineered by Soze, who wants them to do a job for him.
Throughout the film, we are tantalized by the following questions: What really did happen on the ship? Is Verbal telling the truth to the investigating lawman (Palmintieri) or protecting someone? What’s the real reason for what’s going on? And, as everyone keeps asking, who’s Keyser Soze?
McQuarrie’s script is constructed like a Chinese puzzle box, with every piece a clue, but often we’re too swept up in the smart dialogue and distinctive characters to heed all the little details necessary to put it together – even on a second go-round. Not to worry, we will be reminded but, in a refreshing switch from the usual conventions, it’s done in a visual montage rather than a monologue.
Director Bryan Singer doesn’t let a dull moment go by, drawing us into the riddle further and further, letting us admire his guys for their guts, style and attitude, even as we wonder whether we should trust the sentiments expressed by any or all of them.
The DVD is loaded with truly enjoyable extras, including a batch of featurettes that explore the film’s complicated plot and some very entertaining interviews with Singer, McQuarrie and the cast explaining how they all came together to make the movie. The line-up scene in Chapter 4 takes on new (and amusing) dimensions once we know that it’s cut together from outtakes, since none of the actors – even the normally dead-serious Byrne – were able to refrain from breaking up that day. The actual outtake reel has more production value than the usual blooper collection, as director Singer explains that it was originally assembled to entertain cast and crew. Deleted scenes aren’t especially interesting, except for one dubbed "Extra Verbal," which includes a bit more of Spacey’s performance and a funny introduction by editor/composer John Ottman, who also provides a lively and informed audio commentary. Singer and McQuarrie are similarly articulate in their separate commentary. By all means, check out both versions of Chapter 18 to hear about on on-set physical accidents that happened during one relatively innocuous scene in a garage (yes, characters do get shot here, but all the bad stuff happens during a dialogue section).
"The Usual Suspects" comes in both widescreen 2.35:1 and full-screen 1.33:1. Unlike most double-sided discs, this one has both versions of the movie on the same side, with the flip side reserved for the special features (except, obviously, for the audio commentaries). Pressing "play" on the movie side automatically brings up the choice of aspect ratios. The widescreen version is handsome, with clear images and nice tints – in the aforementioned Chapter 18, a garage is purposefully awash in green lighting that doesn’t bleed all over the other elements in the shot. When images are washed out – as in a Chapter 22 flashback – it is a deliberate artistic choice, not a flaw in either the original film or the DVD transfer. There’s a particularly sharp image in Chapter 24, where we see Keaton with perfect clarity through a reflected silhouette in a window, a gorgeous shot faithfully reproduced.
Sound is good without being spectacular. As the filmmakers note in the documentaries and commentaries, "Usual Suspects" was shot in five weeks on a low budget, so the original soundtrack wasn’t designed to blow viewers out of their seats. Consequently, explosions look visually bigger than they sound. In Chapter 26, for example, a firefight produces impressively choreographed and disturbing violence onscreen, but the gunfire is relatively sedate. Chapter 6 features a good foghorn effect and atmospheric ambient sound, with a nice surround effect of lapping water. Silences are also handled very well, with quiet sections in Chapter 7 and 9 allowed to breathe, rather than seeming like sonic dropouts. However, most of the sound effects play in the mains, with surround used primarily for Ottman’s handsome score. Dialogue is consistently crisp and clear in the center channel.
Singer sets a fluid and bracing pace, keeping us engaged throughout. "The Usual Suspects" is a cooler-blooded customer than many other examples of the genre. The violence is plentiful, but there’s no delight in inventive mayhem; on the flip side, there’s no hint of redemption. "The Usual Suspects" can and does elicit fascination, admiration, fear and dark laughter. The one thing it doesn’t to is go for the heart – being moved is not part of the experience here.