The Usual Suspects: Explained

If you’ve had a chance to listen to the commentary track on The Usual Suspects DVD, you probably threw something across the room when the writer and director began discussing what really happened at the end of the film. That’s because the audio fades away and the filmmakers dodge the question! Thus, we are left to our own devices to puzzle out how Keyser Söze managed the greatest trick the devil ever pulled. Well, fret no more, here’s the plot and ending of The Usual Suspects explained; spoilers ahead!

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Who is Keyser Söze?

That’s the question The Usual Suspects asks, and from the very start, the filmmakers set audiences on his scent. The rest of the film is a hunt for the answer while misdirecting viewers and a hapless investigator at every turn. It only makes sense, then, that by the end of the film, when this question is answered, it leaves many viewers’ heads spinning.

So let’s attempt to make that spinning stop.

A Story Within a Story

The Usual Suspects, streaming now on FuboTV, is, on its face, two stories in one:

  1. The interrogation of Verbal Kint — witness, alleged criminal participant, and sole survivor of a horribly botched heist involving an obscure drug kingpin. This action takes place in the present time of the story.
  2. The crime which led to the deaths of Verbal and his co-conspirators as employers of said kingpin. This crime is the background for the interrogation and is shown in flashback as present-day Verbal recounts the details.

Navigating back and forth between these two stories is, on its surface, an attempt at clarification, but what emerges beneath is a foundational sublayer of subterfuge. Examining these two stories in chronological order, instead of the intercut manner of the film, may help distinguish those disparate elements.

The Lineup

The doomed participants in the heist meet in a police lineup, where they’ve been brought in as “the usual suspects” for a truck hijacking that everyone, including the cops, knew they didn’t commit.

They are:

  • Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) – Disgraced former cop and the alleged leader of this criminal band of misfits
  • Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin) – Their entry man
  • Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) – McManus’s ride-or-die
  • Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack) – Their demolitions expert
  • Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) – A pitiful “cripple” and alleged con artist supreme

After their predictable release, they decide to join forces to get back at the corrupt police. They manage to pull off a heist that embarrasses the entire department.

When that goes well, a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) approaches Keaton on behalf of his client, a mystery man named Keyser Söze, to solicit his crew to pull off another, bigger heist. The fact that Keaton and each member of his crew are known to be on Söze’s bad side for one reason or another helps persuade them to take the job.

Skip to the opening of the movie (since we’re providing the summary in chronological order rather than the way it appears in the film) and the heist requested by Kobayashi turns out to be a disaster, blowing up the boat and 24 people, including all but one the heist crew, who is the only living witness to the incident.

The Interrogation

In the present time of the story, federal Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) borrows an LA county sergeant’s office to conduct his interview of Verbal Kint. Kujan’s theory is that Keaton is actually Keyser Söze.

The Crime

Nobody in law enforcement believed Keyser Söze even existed: let’s start there. What made the elite gangster so mysterious, unique and — if real — powerful and terrifying was that nobody had ever seen him, so nobody knew what he looked like. Hence, nobody could identify him. Yet, he was attributed with numerous brutal deaths and domination of the LA drug trade.

The heist that Keyser Söze ostensibly hired Keaton and crew to perform, through his advocate Kobayashi, was to destroy $91 million worth of cocaine being sold by a competitor to Söze’s empire.

The truth, however, was that Söze hired them to give him the opportunity to kill a man who had seen what he looked like and thus could identify him. The target also happened to be on the take from the cocaine dealers. Söze’s ruse was designed to destroy all the evidence of that murder, including any and all witnesses.

The End-End

The interview with Kujan ends when Verbal’s story is complete and he refuses to testify in court about anything he just told Kujan. He posts bail and exits the precinct, still a free man.

The Patsy

Throughout the movie, Verbal is portrayed as weak, stupid, and cursed by life with a twisted spine, an uncooperative arm and a limp–the perfect patsy. He is but a passive observer tricked into being a complicit participant in what he is confessing.

Even Kujan recognizes this and can’t help putting him down throughout the interview. Every scene – from both storylines – makes you pity or empathize with Verbal all the more, further deflecting any suspicion in the audience, or Kujan, that he is anything more than a fool caught up in a botched crime far bigger and more important than he.

At the end of the movie, after Verbal exits the precinct and starts walking away from it, his leg straightens out, his limp vanishes and his gait becomes normal. Pulling back, we see a renewed Verbal walking straight, standing proud, and lighting a cigarette with his formerly disabled hand and now-limber, dexterous fingers. It starts to dawn on us that we’ve all been played.

When Verbal gets into a car with Kobayashi, that’s when we know for sure. Kujan, racing out of the station and looking around frantically, has also just figured out: that Verbal Kint is Keyser Söze.

The Bulletin Board

While Verbal Kint walks away from the precinct, Kujan knocks over the mug he’d given Verbal during the interview and it comes crashing to the floor. There he sees the brand name inscribed on the bottom of the mug: Kobayashi.

Kujan starts looking around the room and notices the bulletin board on the wall behind him, covered in papers, wanted posters, etc. Printed on various pieces here and there are names, places, and other information familiar from Verbal’s story. In that moment, he realizes–as does the audience–that Verbal Kint made up the entire thing.

Verbal had gathered from observations around Kujan’s office — an office unfamiliar to Kujan because he had borrowed it for the interview. Kujan realizes the truth had been at his back throughout the interrogation and in front of Kint, directly in his line of sight. He races outside to try to stop Verbal-now-revealed-as-Söze from escaping, but loses sight of him among the bustling city crowd.

The Usual Suspects Ending Explained: What Really Happened?

The prevailing questions making most viewers scratch their heads leaving the theater in 1995 and their couches ever since was what really happened? Was anything true in the story that Verbal/Söze told?

And how did Söze perform all the acts in the story attributed to him while performing all the acts in the story attributed to Verbal?

Circling Back: Who Exactly Is Keyser Söze?

At the very center of the film is Keyser Söze: elusive drug lord, anonymous criminal mastermind and one scary S.O.B. Verbal Kint is merely the only one left alive to tell the story of Söze’s latest escapade.

In the ending of The Usual Suspects, it’s made pretty obvious to the viewer that Verbal Kint is Keyser Söze — or, perhaps more accurately, Keyser Söze is Verbal Kint. The film makes this clear enough that most viewers comprehend that. What many struggle with, however, is how.

How is it possible that the guy causing all that damage is the guy telling his story? How did Verbal Kint do all the actions attributed to Keyser Söze and still be the only one to get out of it alive, let alone get away with the crime?

The truth is that Verbal/Söze did conspire with Dean Keaton and his band to carry out the heist. He was the mastermind behind the scenes, sending his own lawyer (under the fake name “Kobayashi”) to Keaton to hire him as the group’s leader.

The truth is Söze/Verbal did devise/utilize the opportunity to kill the witness who knew what he looked like and was prepared to snitch him out to the enemy. He did it while the rest of Keaton’s gang was botching the cocaine heist and getting themselves killed in the process. (Though, in their defense, they were walking blindly into an ambush set by Söze himself.)

The reason Söze didn’t die in the blaze was because he wasn’t there when the boat exploded. Since he knew it was going to explode (because he himself set the detonators), he was able to escape before his unwitting co-conspirators, his murder victim, a few casualties of collateral damage, and all the other evidence of his actual crime blew up into smithereens.

The Unreliable Narrator

Verbal Kint is what’s known in classic storytelling form as the unreliable narrator. Think: Tony Soprano or Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

While watching The Usual Suspects, we are just as clueless to the truth as investigator Kujan. We may think we’re seeing the film through Verbal’s perspective, but we’re not: we’re actually seeing it through Kujan’s eyes as he visualizes the wild yarn Verbal is spinning for him.

So, we’re as surprised as he is when the truth is revealed at the end (to us, by the Kint/Söze’s transformation on the sidewalk; to Kujan, by the bulletin board,) as we, like Kujan, realize in that moment we cannot trust a word Verbal said, or even the evidence of our own eyes now.

Theme and Meaning of The Usual Suspects

More than just a modern homage to classic noir, this film is a meditation on storytelling. Like the way Scheherazade tells stories to her husband – a Sultan who marries a fresh virgin every night and beheads her the next morning – to avoid her predecessors’ fate, Söze weaves a complex narrative.

And like Scheherazade who ultimately succeeds, winning the love and devotion of her husband and ultimately becoming ruler of the kingdom, so too does Kint succeed by winning over Kunan with a convincing yarn, and walks away retaining rulership of his own criminal kingdom.

Both tales pay homage, as well, to the alluring power of storytelling.

Use of Film Technique in The Usual Suspects

Let’s take a look at a few techniques that the film uses.

Kevin Who?

A large part of the surprise in the film’s ending depended on the audience’s unfamiliarity with Kevin Spacey. At the time of the film’s release, Spacey was unknown to most filmgoers, this being his first major motion picture. Between that and Spacey’s nebbish portrayal of the character, it effectively shoved him into the background and made audiences all but forget about him. To even consider that this “lesser” actor might be Keyser Söze was a ridiculous concept.

Gabriel Byrne, who played Dean Keaton, by contrast, was a far more familiar face to audiences then, making those audience members trying to suss out Keyser Söze’s secret identity more likely to suspect Keaton as being Söze. Placing Keaton in the gang’s leadership role only bolstered this crafty misdirection: an intentional one, say the film’s creators, to throw the viewer — and the cops — off the scent.

The filmmakers also fueled their ruse by making Keaton a former cop who’d been fired for corruption and who eventually faked his own death to avoid facing up to it.

Meanwhile, Verbal’s portrayal of Keaton paints him as a kind, compassionate, gentle-hearted leader, completely contradicting Kujan’s own perspective of the man. This strengthens Kujan’s belief in his theory that Keaton is Söze because it paints a picture of how Keaton-as-Söze must’ve tricked Verbal – and attempted to trick the cops. Kujan thinks he’s too smart for Verbal’s game, feeding his illusion that Söze is indeed Keaton.

The Usual Suspects: Plot Holes Explained

The filmmakers scattered an array of plot holes throughout the film as a sort of easter eggs to help alert the savviest and most astute of observers to the fact that not all of Verbal’s statement was on the up-and-up. If you were paying close attention, you might have noticed before everyone else that he was hiding something.

For instance, Verbal told two different stories to two different people (the Defense Attorney and Kujan) about the same event. To one, he says he never witnessed Keaton get killed; to the other, he says he saw Keaton get shot by a slim figure.

In another tip to viewers, Verbal says he was hiding behind the ropes watching the whole event go down, but in the shot of the ropes during the scene of the shooting, the filmmakers show clearly there’s no one there.

Yet a third plot hole that can only be filled if Verbal is lying is how he can recall conversations for which he wasn’t present, such as the one between Keaton and Edie after his release from the lineup.

The Usual Suspects: Summary

The fact is, The Usual Suspects is a work of deception and misdirection from start to finish. What’s so delightful about the film and makes it eminently watchable again and again is that even once you realize it’s all smoke and mirrors, it still manages to enthrall and amaze.

What where your thoughts on the plot and ending of The Usual Suspects. Drop your comments below.