The Rear-View Mirror: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

– It’s all lies – but they’re entertaining lies, and in the end, isn’t that the real truth?

The Usual Suspects doesn’t get much mention these days. In part, that’s probably due to its director and the actor who played its main character, neither of whom have done themselves many favours in recent years, either professionally or privately. In part, though, it’s probably due to the film’s twist being undoubtedly effective – but moviegoers are notoriously fickle when it comes to endings that seem to undo everything they’ve seen. If the story they’ve been told in effect didn’t happen, what was its point?

The Usual Suspects

I still think that The Usual Suspects is underrated: it’s both a savvy genre piece and and a witty comment on fiction itself. Sure, the main character Verbal Kint tells his interrogator a tall tale that turns out to be a massive lie – or at least so unreliable that it might as well be. Did any of what he tells actually happen? What did happen? Kint is a Sheherazade figure, getting his antagonist, US customs agent Dave Kujan, hooked on a story that is intriguing, exciting and pretty much says what Kujan wants to hear. If the story you’re told is a good story, if it entertains you, isn’t that enough? Isn’t that what we go to the cinema for most of the time? How is the fiction that Kint establishes any less meaningful, any less of a good story, because the film too frames it as a fiction?

The Usual Suspects

And The Usual Suspects is definitely a good story told well. It isn’t perfect: it has no idea what to do with its one female character and it certainly doesn’t avoid cliché (even if it arguably delivers this with irony much of the time) – but it’s a beautifully constructed, snappy and fun illustration of unreliable narration that rewards at least one repeat viewing. Admittedly, it’s all lies, the film admits in its final five minutes – but oh boy, are they entertaining lies.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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