The following is an essay written for my English class.
The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir film that follows the interrogation of Rodger Kent, a small time con man and one of the few survivors of a massacre that took place the night before. Using a non-linear style of storytelling, the film tricks the audience into misinterpreting the information being given. On top of that, the film uses slow, subtle camera movements in order to give the images on-screen a sense of constant movement. By combining neo-noir characteristics with non-linear storytelling along with subtle camera movements The Usual Suspects is able to create an aura of suspense and mystery that allows the twist ending to shock the audience, and once realized, completely change the tone of the film.
Film Noir, French for black film, is used to characterize Hollywood crime dramas made between 1940 and 1950. There is much debate about whether Film Noir is a genre or a film movement, with many saying it is not a genre, as genres do not end. Since the 1960’s films that share attributes with Film Noir have been labeled Neo-Noir. The Usual Suspects is a Neo-Noir as it shares some of the Film Noir characteristics. Film Noir often deals with moral corruption, and moral corruption is very much present in The Usual Suspects. Dean Keaton is an ex-cop who lived a life of crime and faked his own death to avoid a criminal trial. The main villain, Keyser Söze, is a crime lord who killed his own family to prove to a rival gang how merciless he can be. In one scene the gang robs a taxicab that is being used by corrupt NYPD to escort smugglers to their destination for a cut of the profit. By bringing down the taxicab scheme the gang humiliates the NYPD by bringing the scandal into the public eye, and at the same time they get revenge on the NYPD for arresting them in the beginning of the film. Film Noir is famous for portraying gritty crime dramas, and as such this is a natural choice of genre for The Usual Suspects.
As is common in Film Noir, the film starts with the end of the massacre on the boat, and then cuts to the next day with the investigation into what happened. Rodger Kent is one of the two survivors of the massacre, and the story is told through his testimony during the interview. Kent starts by going back to when the group first met-after being brought in for questioning about an assault on an armored truck. The police hold the five of them, but they have no evidence to prosecute any of them, and are forced to let them go. Once released the five men decide to come together for a job to get back at the police while making some money at the same time. After a successful job, the group decides one more can’t hurt and decide to do one more for a man named Redfoot in Los Angeles. This job doesn’t go as smoothly as the first, and the group becomes intertwined with the legendary criminal Keyser Söze. Keyser informs the group that they have all stolen from him in one way or another, and the only reason they aren’t dead because of it is due to the fact that they did it indirectly, and were not aware of the fact. He wants the group to attack a ship where a big cocaine deal is scheduled to go down, and offers them the money from the exchange along with them getting to keep living as reward for completing the task. At first the group refuses, but they are ultimately convinced and proceed to attack the ship as scheduled. The battle on the ship is long and bloody, with many being killed, and once the group manages to subdue every enemy they are shocked to find no cocaine on the ship. Keyser Söze had used the group of criminals to dispose of someone who had the power to expose him to the authorities, and then killed every member of the group with the exception of Rodger Kent, who managed to get away.
While the plot of The Usual Suspects is important, even more important is the manner in which it is told. The narrative is told in a non-linear fashion, going back and forth between the past and the present. This makes it much more exciting for the audience to see the story unfold, as there is a certain aura of mystery around the plot. By telling the story through flashbacks the audience is given the perspective of Rodger Kent; we are told what happened through his eyes, and because of this we are given a limited amount of information. However when the film cuts to the present and the ongoing investigation into the massacre on the ship, we are given additional information that Rodger is not supposed to know, since the only ones who know it are the investigators. Using this extra information the audience will form theories about what happened and who is who, but the film gives you this information intentionally to make you form specific theories. The creators of this film picked this style of narrative storytelling for a couple of reasons. For the film to work with the twist ending the audience cannot be given all the information in a linear fashion, it just wouldn’t work well.
The nonlinear narrative is enhanced by one of the most important characteristics The Usual Suspects employs, the style of cinemaphotography employed in the making of the film. Cinemaphotography is defined as the art or technique of motion-picture photography. Cinemaphotography style varies from film to film, and directors will often carry over characteristics from one film’s style to another. The Usual Suspects uses a combination of slow zooms and dolly moves that end in close-ups to add a subtle energy to scenes of dialogue, which would otherwise be quite bland. By using these slow camera movements the film creates a feeling of constant movement and action. This sense of movement is important, because in a film that is constantly going back and forth between the past and the present it can be easy to miss a piece of information and suddenly find yourself lost in the narrative. During an action scene the camera moves quickly to make the actions on-screen seem of utmost importance, about you cannot use that kind of movement in a scene where characters are simply exchanging dialogue. The subtle camera movement causing a constant feeling of movement makes everything on-screen seem just as important as that car chase; it entraps you in the images flickering on the screen to help prevent the audience from missing information. Small camera techniques like this often get lost in films, but they truly are the cornerstones of how the film is presented.
The Usual Suspects is currently considered a classic, but that could never have been achieved if not for the specific film techniques used in the film. Every aspect of this film is done to perfection, with each characteristic making an important contribution to the tone and style of the film. The non-linear storytelling brings together the darkness of the Noir style tale by giving us small pieces of information with which we as viewers can theories and assumptions, which will be proven wrong with the big reveal at the end of the film. Subtle camera movements keep the attention of the audience by making everything seem important, as well as helping prevent the loss of important information. The Usual Suspects is a modern crime classic, but it could never have become that without employing all of these tactics to perfection.
A PDF of this essay is available here.