(SPOILERS: The Usual Suspects)
I’ve been writing a lot this summer about narrative devices. I want to spend a few posts now examining a movie that employs several complex narrative devices: The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie). Let’s start by taking a look at the basic structure of the film.
The Usual Suspects is a mystery. This means it works primarily on an intellectual level. It’s a puzzle to be solved. Sure there are some exciting action scenes and a nod at emotion with the relationship between Edie and Keaton. But what we’re most interested in is the mystery: who is Keyser Soze?
Even complex, non-chronological stories like this fit the three-act structural paradigm. The first question we have to ask for our breakdown is who is the main character? It’s a little tricky in this movie. On the one hand we have Verbal Kent. He’s the narrating the story of the heist so we’re seeing most of the events through his eyes
Then there’s Agent Kujan. He certainly has a goal that helps drive the movie forward – he’s trying to figure out who’s behind the crime. As the detective in a mystery story we’d tend to expect him to be the main character.
But neither of these characters are providing the primary engine of the narrative. For the most part Verbal is simply an observer to the action (despite the fact we learn at the end that he actually set the whole thing in motion.) He functions as a viewpoint character, not the main character. And Kujan provides the impetus for the actual telling of the story but isn’t involved in the main narrative line.
That main narrative line is the story of Dean Keaton struggling to get out of the complex criminal plot he’s caught up in. Dean Keaton is our main character. Interestingly we see Keaton get killed at the beginning of the movie. And that introduces the mystery - we want to know who killed Keaton. And when we learn it was Keyser Soze then the question becomes who is Keyser Soze?
So with that in mind, let me identify the main structural beats:
Catalyst: Keaton is arrested at his dinner meeting. He wants to go straight but the cops aren’t going to let him. We have our character and his problem. This introduces the…
Dramatic Question (AKA Main Tension): Can Keaton extract himself from his criminal lifestyle and go straight?
Act One Break: Keaton agrees to join the gang for one – and only one – job.
Midpoint: Keaton and the others are given an “offer” from Kobayashi that they can’t refuse. They are to stop a drug deal on a boat. If they won’t, they’re going to jail. The tension is spun in a new direction and the stakes are raised.
Act Two Break: Keaton and the gang successfully infiltrate the boat. Note that since this is going to end badly for Keaton the end of Act Two is a high point (and the midpoint is a low point) in terms of the dramatic question.
Twist: There’s no dope on the boat. They’ve been set up.
Resolution: Keyser Soze kills Keaton. That ends the dramatic question of the movie but not the question of the mystery. The dramatic question provides the spine that defines the story. At this point, however, it’s the mystery question we’re most interested in as the audience. Fortunately we get the answer soon after and then the credits roll. If the dramatic question was answered and then a significant amount of time passed before we learned who Soze was, then the movie would start to unravel.
So even a complex story like The Usual Suspects ends up having a pretty simple spine. That’s a really helpful thing to be aware of when you attempt something narratively ambitious like this. Solid structure is critical to a well-made movie but it is never the reason we enjoy the movie.