The Usual Suspects is Gabriel Byrne’s most popular film, if by popular we mean success at the box office and recognition by its legion of fans. And, although the film was released in 1995, there are many young people for whom it is a movie touchstone: Keyser Soze has entered the geek canon and a recent Twitterer noted that he was walking down the same dark streets as Dean Keaton (with some excitement!).
Much of this popularity stems, of course, from the film’s plot and writing–there is something about the incredibly successful twist at the end of the film that just stirs people up. And rightly so. But the sustained interest that surrounds this film involves more than that twisty ending because, after all, once you know about it, the film is “spoiled,” as some would say. That twisty ending is a kick, no doubt about it, but what keeps people coming back to this film is the artistry with which it was created.
Central to that artistry (which obviously includes the writing, the direction, the photography, and the music score) is the acting. Kevin Spacey scored his first Oscar (for supporting actor) with his portrayal of Verbal Kint and what an amazing performance it is. He makes Verbal as twisty as the ending and practically turns himself into a pretzel to convince us of his utter lack of power and courage. It is a great performance.
However, the human pretzel Verbal Kint would not be as effective or as human were it not for his very straight (both in posture and in his maleness) counterpart, Dean Keaton.
And this is where Gabriel Byrne comes in. Quietly. Darkly. Fashionably. Dangerously. With a woman on his arm, of course. Was he actually a bent cop in the not-so-distant past? Did he really remove (read “kill”) those witnesses to his nefarious deeds while he was in the NYPD? Could he have actually staged his own death in order to be reborn to a life of, if not no crime, then perhaps whiter collar crime? That’s the story on Dean Keaton and, with his Irish accent intact, Gabriel Byrne slides him by with a bit of a lilt, an assuredness that only real confidence can provide, and an unexpected vulnerability that makes you look twice when he gives you that smile. This is a man that will never tell you the whole story–the perfect counterpoint to Verbal Kint, who is sitting in the police station spilling his guts as fast as they can bring him coffee.
Dean Keaton and Verbal Kint are friends, to hear Verbal tell it. And now is probably the time we need to consider the concept of “the unreliable narrator.”
In most narratives, there’s an element of trust that the person telling you the story is telling the truth, at least as far as they know it. This trope occurs when that convention is discarded. The narrator’s facts contradict each other. If you ask them to go back a bit and retell it, the events come out a little differently. It can be like dealing with a used-car salesman — there’s a real story in there somewhere, but you’re left to piece it together through all the lies, half-truths, and mistruths.
When done badly, a story written from this point-of-view can be viewed as manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. When successful, however, the results can be powerful and fascinating. Some of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century use unreliable narrators. Examples include To Kill a Mockingbird (child narrator), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (dementia), and Lolita (narrator attempting to manipulate interpretation).
The many faces of Dean Keaton, a collage by Bowie25
Verbal Kint is our only witness to the events that occur in this film and, while he is utterly convincing, we do begin to wonder about his story along the way. We stop wondering, though, when his words turn to Dean Keaton. Keaton we believe in. He is a bad cop trying to go good. We respond to his attempts at reformation. He is in a seemingly committed relationship with an intelligent and accomplished woman who obviously cares about him. We applaud his good sense. He has an astute understanding of the real politik of the streets. We appreciate his savvy. He does not want to get involved in any of this new nonsense. We agree that it is all a very bad idea. We care about him as a character and so we care about everyone else as a character–even the pretzel man, Verbal Kint.
Gabriel Byrne probably did not have to do a lot of soul searching to play this role, but he played it to perfection. Every intense expression, every angry glare, every confused shake of his head keeps us in the game. While Kevin Spacey’s Verbal is playing true to his name, Gabriel’s Keaton is quietly working his way to some kind of truth, trying like a bulldog to figure out who is playing him, wondering just how he and these other guys ended up in the shitty end of the playground.
The danger of revealing more is too great. There are some wonderful performances in this wonderful film, so be sure to see it if you have not. The crackerjack finale is fun, too.
And, for your viewing pleasure, The Mega Movie Page for The Usual Suspects is now available! You can either whet your appetite or be reminded of all the coolness that is Dean Keaton. There are reviews, videos, screencaps (thanks to LucilleP!), quotes, the official gag/blooper reel, and other goodies. Think of it as the bulletin board in the police detective’s office, but this time the information presented to you is…well, never mind. I don’t want to spoil the ending.