The Preposition: Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects is one of the most overrated films of the 90s.
The Backdrop: The Usual Suspects seems to be a film that has quietly slipped onto the canon of great films from the 90s, praised for its complex narrative and twist ending. It’s inclusion as a great film seems to go unquestioned in many film circles and it won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1996 to boot. However, I find it to be a tedious film, in which the central enigma lacks urgency and the twist ending drains the film by not only forcing us to reevaluate what came before, but rendering it meaningless. Perhaps you disagree. I’m open to hearing defences of the film, but for now here are my three reasons the film is overrated in my mind.
1) The film’s twist ending is so equivocal that it effectively renders the film a waste of time: This is for me the most fatal blow to the film’s reputation. *SPOILERS* I like twist endings and have nothing against the films that employ a key reveal that causes us to reevaluate what came before. Such a combination of agnorisis and peripeteia was praised by Aristotle as the greatest of plots. The twists in films like the The Sixth Sense and Fight Club give what came before greater resonance and meaning and reward re-watching. But The Usual Suspects has a twist that refuses to enlighten what came before. It offers no conformation of how much of Verbal Kint’s story is a lie or true. Neither the characters nor viewers receive any enlightenment. If it’s all made up, why would anyone want to re-watch the film knowing that you must slog through an exposition drained of stakes? Sure, Verbal is not who he says he is, but who is he? Is he Keyser Soze? We can’t know. Perhaps some of the appeal lies in the “choose your own ending” aspect, which I’m sure has fuelled plenty of dorm room debates, but it’s all impossible to prove.
2) There are plenty of more compelling crime sagas. This is partly due to my first point, but the central events of The Usual Suspects are far from gripping. Films such as Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas offer better intersecting crime stories and tales that reward careful attention to the intricacies of the plot. I can’t remember half of the characters in The Usual Suspects, and that’s a crime considering the wealth of talent on display in this film (including unsung greats like Giancarlo Esposito and Pete Postlethwaite). Perhaps it is supposed to represent how complex the story that Verbal is weaving is, but his story should be gripping enough to hook me, or I’m going to find myself increasingly detached from the story and question Sgt. Rabin’s character.
3) For a film this praised it doesn’t represent the best work of any of its collaborators. Verbal Kint is the worst kind of Kevin Spacey role. Spacey is a talented actor, but this role is one of his most smug and irritating. He’s won two Oscars, but neither is for his best work. Even director Bryan Singer has made better films, particularly, his second of the X-men films. If nearly everyone involved has gone on to better work, why is this film still held up as one of the pinnacles of 90s studio filmmaking?
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m missing something that will open The Usual Suspects to the kinds of readings that I love. But for now I’ll contend that it’s one of the most overrated films of the last 20 years. What do you think?