'Suspects' keeps the audience guessing

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Alfred Hitchcock was once amused when audiences watching his film "Stage Fright" shouted in outrage when the film's conclusion contradicted scenes that had been presented as "fact" earlier in the film. The audience felt helpless in solving a mystery when they couldn't trust the medium to present "reality" with consistent logic.

Director Bryan Singer has chosen to present his new thriller, "The Usual Suspects," in a similar vein. The movie is told in a series of flashbacks by Verbal Kint, a crippled criminal from New York who is being interrogated by David Kujan, a U.S. customs official because of a massacre Kint was involved with that sprung from an attempt to acquire profits stemming from a drug deal. Kujan drags the story from Kint, who explains the events leading up to the massacre, but the audience is never sure whether to believe him or the film's visuals that corroborate his story.

Kujan unveils a complicated scenario involving five criminal masterminds (including Kint) who, six weeks earlier, were brought together for an investigation of a crime none of them committed. As they sat together in a cell, they developed a plan for a heist that eventually spawned an intricate web of deceit and murder that not only threatened their lives, but unearthed a demonic legend named Keyser Soze, a legendary figure from the criminal underworld whose existence is surrounded by hideous tales of revenge and madness.

"The Usual Suspects" is a tightly-constructed film that delights in keeping one step ahead of its viewers. It's a movie that keeps the audience guessing and slightly off-balance. In style, it's more of a pessimistic film noir entry than the type of romantic thrillers Hitchcock specialized in. It has a curious intensity about it, made vivid through its solemn ensemble performances and the harsh lighting it employs to emphasize deep shadows and strong textures.

At times, however, the film's narrative complexity and inclination to toy with the audience weighs the material down. Watching the movie, one has the ever-present feeling of having to play catch up and only the most attentive viewer will be able to keep up with it. The script, by Singer's previous collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, reminds one of the serpentine workings of traditional noir plots like "The Maltese Falcon" or "The Big Sleep." This atmosphere of attentiveness is hard to sustain for an extended amount of time, but director Singer keeps the material buzzing.

The five criminals are slowly being manipulated into a frightening destiny and the film works best when it pulls back from its cerebral puzzle and begins to lay on the gothic atmosphere that grows as the seemingly omniscient presence of Keyser Soze draws nearer and nearer.

Unfortunately, the film eventually works itself into such a bundle of atmosphere and complexity that it can't quite manage a satisfying ending. It settles with a plot twist that comes so unexpectantly that it causes one to go back and examine the events that were depicted and question the truthfulness of their representation. While it seems Singer has played an elaborate trick on the viewer, and possibly even a deceitful one, it was a trick that would make Hitchcock proud.

"The Usual Suspects" is playing at Century Park 16, 620-0750.

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