By Mauricio O. Dias
Just one of these days I was watching the Canadian documentary ‘100 Films and a Funeral’, about the period in the 1990’s when British Polygram tried to extend to film business the power they had already obtained in musical business.
At a certain part of the documentary an executive talks about the film ‘The Usual Suspects’, one of the company highlights. And he says that was the best screenplay he had ever read.
Listening to this, I remembered that I hadn’t enjoyed ‘The Usual Suspects’ when I saw it, back in the 1990’s. And I hadn’t liked the plot at all, either.
Considering the hypothesis that I misjudged the film, I’ve searched at imdb.com for more information about it. It was prized with two Oscars, one of them for best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Of course, an Oscar is not at all a guaranty of artistic value: ‘Titanic’ won eleven Oscars and nobody with a brain can think it’s a good movie.
But there was more about ‘The Usual Suspects’. In a webpage at ‘Writers Guild of America’ site – http://www.wga.org/uploadedFiles/news_and_events/101_screenplay/101press.pdf – where ‘101 Greatest Screenplays’ were listed, ‘The Usual Suspects’ was pointed out as the 35th best screenplay. The WGA list doesn’t separate screenplays based on novels or stage plays and the ones which were written directly for the screen.
Being placed as the 35th best screenplay, this means that ‘The Usual Suspects’ had a best screenplay than Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Raging Bull’; John Huston’s ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’; Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’; Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence of the Lambs’; Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ and Fellini’s ‘8 1/2’ – just to quote a few important titles.
So I thought I probably had missed something when I watched the movie. Maybe I was tired, in a bad mood, or something else. And I decided to re-watch ‘The Usual Suspects’.
And, after the end of it, I kept the same impression of the first time I saw, or even worse. It’s not a good screenplay at all.
Now I wanna list the reasons that make me feel this way. If you have not seen the movie and intend to do so, there will be spoilers ahead:
1) The story which is told to US Customs Officer Dave Kujan (and to the audience) by Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint is illogic. If in the real world there was an international criminal so important as Keyser Söze, with enough power to choose all the criminals who will stay in a line-up at a Police Station in N.Y., he would also have contacts in L.A. police to ask them to go check a ship in a L.A. harbor – especially if it was filled with cocaine – and apprehend it. It wasn’t his intention to steal the drug to sell it himself, because he had ordered the ship should been exploded with all cocaine on board. Don’t tell me he just had power over the N.Y Police, and could not to do the same in L.A. He is an INTERNATIONAL criminal, not a N.Y based gangster, like Don Vito Corleone (And even Don Vito was able to get the horse head cut off in L.A., out of his ‘safety zone’). Later, we discover that cocaine story was false, and the real reason to get into the ship was that Keyser Söze had intended to kill an enemy who was there. But none of the criminals who were part of the bunch assigned to that mission – the guys on the poster photo of the film – had considered a little weird to have to go on board?
2) Keyser Söze, a man who supposedly was raised in Turkey, would hardly not to have any accent.
3) If Keyser Söze wanted to explode the ship in a L.A. harbor, why would he send men to an intense shooting on board before exploding the ship? If you are an international criminal, who sells weapons in Pakistan, and Northern Ireland, you also have access to missiles, mortars, bazookas, and all kind of explosives. Why going into the ship and facing God knows how many armed criminals in a battle through the ship’s tight corridors, if you can explode it from a safe distance? And none of the other characters in the film points this fact to Kobayashi, the Keyser Söze’s minion?
4) Considering the fact that the men in the ship are all armed drug dealers, and there were a lot of them, it’s oddly surprising how easy it is for just two criminals – the ones played by Stephen Baldwin and Gabriel Byrne – walk in and kill all of them. Not even a pair of John Rambos would accomplish that mission without getting a single shot.
5) If Keyser Söze is so powerful, how Officer Dave Kujan manages to arrest him after the ship explosion? If you are a criminal, so powerful and with many connections, why don’t you disappear after the service you’ve ordered is already done? Why loose time at a Police Station? For the fun of mocking the bovine Officer?
6) The average movie goer might think that ‘The Usual Suspects’ has a twist ending, like ‘The Sixth Sense’ one, but it’s not. In ‘The Usual Suspects’ all the story which is told us for an hour and forty minutes is a bunch of lies invented by Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint based on the pamphlets stapled on the bulletin board behind US Customs Officer – even the names of some of the characters in his story were taken from there. So we, spectators, don’t really know what has happened. Did the characters really exist and had he just changed their names? Or were they just a fictional part of his misleading story? We don’t know. This is not a twist ending, this is a bluff.
7) There are people who have some kind of religious belief, and there are those who have not. Those who have usually believe in an omnipresent and omnipotent God. In a movie like ‘The Usual Suspects’ these divine characteristics are attributed to Keyser Söze (after his family being taken as hostages, which caused his metamorphose from a small drug dealer into some kind of bogeyman). He takes God’s place. A cruel murder is raised to the level of a demiurge figure. He knows everything that happens, he rules the world, he makes everything happens. Some may consider that as Satanism. This is so philosophically small, so nasty. ‘The Usual Suspects’ is not about human beings, is about mythical one-dimensional creatures, not more elaborated than those in the ‘X-Men’ comics. On the other hand, the ‘X-Men’ comic characters have feelings, friendship, empathy, regrets. Almost all characters in ‘The Usual Suspects’ lack this humanity. The only chance of redemption, the love that Gabriel Byrne’s character feels for his girlfriend – which makes him a better man, capable of feeling sorry after punching a crippled man – is destroyed, when Keyser Söze orders the killing of the lady, even after having all his troubles solved.
8) And despite all the evil things he does, Keyser Söze wins. He is the last man standing.
How can a screenplay like that be among the 35 all time bests ones?