(SPOILERS: The Usual Suspects)
So far I’ve been analyzing The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie) in terms of its complex narrative structure. Today I want to look at some techniques that I group under the heading “Elements of the Future.” These are things that help bind the story together and maintain the audience’s forward momentum.
One of the things that interests me about The Usual Suspects is how it dealt with the challenge of keeping momentum when neither the audience nor the characters know what the big job will be or about Keyser Soze until half way through the chronological story.
The complex structure of the movie becomes an element of the future itself. We get hints of where the story’s going which builds anticipation. By flipping back and forth through time we are constantly made aware of how events in the past affect events in the future and of the overall impact of the story. But there are more traditional elements of the future that reinforce the momentum as well.
Advertising is a technique that lets the audience know that big things are coming and can build up those events so they have greater impact. For example, the final boat robbery is heavily advertised. When Kobayashi gives them the assignment he mentions that Soze does not expect them all to live. And when they scout the boat Keaton opines, “it can’t be done.” Plus which, we’ve already seen the aftermath which serves as advertising in its own right.
Soze is also advertised. First, there’s the question of whether he exists or is just a myth. Then Verbal describes the terrifying legend he’s heard of where Soze came from. Also, the reaction of our gang of crooks upon being told Soze is Kobayashi’s employer shows that even these tough guys are afraid of him. This is reinforced when Fenster tries to run and is killed. All of this heightens our desire to know who Soze is.
Plant and Payoff
Every mystery story makes extensive use of planting and payoff – that’s what clues are. The investigator discovers something (the plant) that’s paid off when the solution is presented. And The Usual Suspects has lots of those.
There are other plants and payoffs in The Usual Suspects, though, that don’t carry any real story weight but serve to unify the story. For example, when Kobayashi reveals that Hockney was the guy who robbed the truck that got them all arrested in the beginning of the film. Or that the individual in the extradition case on which Kobayashi had Edie consult is also the target of the final boat invasion.
These kinds of plants and payoffs help connect the disparate pieces of a sprawling story. They subtly cue the audience that even if they haven’t followed everything they can trust that it all makes sense. Audience trust is important in a complex story.
Another nifty use of planting and payoff in The Usual Suspects is at the end when we see the words Quartet and Skokie and Kobayashi on various things around the office. Most of those were planted in seemingly innocuous ways – what does Verbal singing in a barbershop quartet in Skokie have to do with anything? But when they’re paid off we, along with Kujan, realize Verbal has been lying to us.
Preparation and Aftermath
Scenes of preparation and aftermath also help bind the movie together as well as giving us a chance to check in with what the characters are feeling. Scenes of aftermath often become scenes of preparation.
For example, after the gang commits the first job – robbing the New York’s Finest Taxi Service – they retreat to a warehouse to celebrate and look at what they’ve got. Then McManus reveals that his fence is in L.A. The others are not happy to hear that so they make a plan to go off to L.A. together.
The scenes with the fence, Redfoot, serve a similar purpose – when they meet him the first time he tells them of the courier job. The follow up aftermath meeting where our heroes vent their anger over the outcome of that job becomes a preparation when Redfoot tells them that Kobayashi wants to meet them. These scenes link one heist to another so that the momentum doesn’t dissipate before we find out the bigger picture.
Another example is the aforementioned preparation scene where they scout the boat. One touch I particularly like is McManus mentioning that the news says it’s raining in New York. It might seem extraneous but it’s a great way to give us insight into his character. He’s homesick, his mind on where he’d rather be. It’s not on-the-nose dialogue but we grasp the melancholy he’s feeling.
All of these techniques help bind a potentially episodic story into a cohesive whole with solid momentum.