(SPOILERS: The Usual Suspects)
To continue my examination of The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie), I’m going to look at how the film uses Verbal Kint as a viewpoint character and narrator for much of the story.
Using a viewpoint character is a narrative device. It’s putting the audience in a particular character’s shoes (not the main character) to observe the events of the story. Sometimes this means an honest view but with that character’s specific perspective; sometimes it means a limited view so information can be hidden from the audience (because it’s also hidden from the viewpoint character); and sometimes the viewpoint character is not trustworthy, as in this movie, which allows the film to “lie” to the audience without pissing them off.
One of the most interesting things about the movie, of course, is that by the end we realize Verbal has been lying. Obviously some basics of the story must be true since we’ve seen the aftermath, but he’s also manipulating Agent Kujan to hide his actual role in the events. In other words, he’s an unreliable narrator. This is part of the fun of the movie – at the end we re-examine the story we’ve been told based on what we learn about Verbal in the final moments.
You could also say that Agent Kujan is a viewpoint character. After all, we’re hearing Verbal’s story along with him. Kujan is a character we trust which gives us some reliable access into the movie. Ultimately we never learn anything that Kujan doesn’t learn.
Some of the things Verbal tells us are also second hand. For example, he wasn’t there when Keaton got arrested, so when he describes that scene it must be something Keaton told him off screen. The Usual Suspects actually has several layers of viewpoints – Kujan is our viewpoint on Verbal who is our viewpoint into the past events and other people’s stories. Which plays into the slippery nature of the mystery at the story’s heart.
Another narrative device that’s related to the use of Verbal as a viewpoint character is voiceover. Not every viewpoint character uses voiceover, of course, but it is a way to emphasize that that character is telling us the story. In The Usual Suspects this helps us separate reliable and unreliable scenes – scenes with Kujan are presumably accurate while scenes told by Verbal, the only ones with voiceover, may or may not be true.
There’s more voiceover early in the movie than later. This helps speed us through the initial character introductions and the mechanics of all the guys getting thrown into jail together. It also clearly establishes Verbal as the storyteller. As the movie progresses we more often just cut to scenes of Verbal’s story without any voiceover since the audience now understands those time shifts.
We continue to get a little voiceover periodically to ease some transitions and compress exposition. By the last third of the movie there’s barely any voiceover at all. This serves to draw us more emotionally into the tale Verbal is telling. In the latter part of the movie it may be best not to remind the audience so explicitly that they’re watching someone’s story.
One place we get extended voiceover is when Verbal relates the story he believes about Keyser Soze’s origins. In that case these are not Verbal’s memories but rather a myth so using the voiceover instead of the sound from the scene distances us even further from the events we see. The Usual Suspects is using multiple levels of narrative and it employs the voiceover to help us keep straight what level we’re on.
Which is important in this kind of complex storytelling. If you’re going to depart from a straightforward, chronological, objective telling of the story you need to give the audience clues to follow the jumps. Otherwise we’ll feel lost and tune out of the movie.
There’s a saying in screenwriting: “Ambiguity is good. Confusion is bad.”