Sound Lies - achieving closure in The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects
Directed by Bryan Singer.
USA 1995. 101 minutes.


This reading describes the way Bryan Singer uses cinematographic effects (including slow-motion), editing and mis-en-scène in a short realization sequence near the end of the film to reveal its secret without the audience feeling let down by a trick.

David Mitchell, Autumn 2000

Plot Outline

The film starts the day after a bloody massacre on a freighter in San Pedro harbour, Los Angeles. We watch as Customs Agent Dave Kujan, played by Chazz Parminteri, interrogates the sole survivor of the gang of Ďusual suspectsí, 'Verbal' Kint, played by Kevin Spacey. During this interrogation we see flashbacks illustrating the story Kint is telling and itís these flashbacks, narrated by Kint and intercut with the interrogation, that make up the bulk of the film. The point where Kint finishes telling his story, and leaves the office where Kujan has been interrogating him, could be the end of the film. Indeed Kujan thinks it is. But we, unlike Kujan, know that Keaton, the character played by Gabriel Byrne, can't be the real villain, Keyser Soze, because in the opening sequence we've seen Keaton shot by someone he calls Soze. We were never shown the killer's face, so we don't know who Soze is. It's the task of the last five minutes of the film to resolve this problem.


At the heart of film's last five minutes is a short realization sequence, lasting less than ninety seconds, which is designed to tell us the secret behind the film we've been watching, that the story Kint has been telling Kujan is in fact untrue. The flashback scenes, such as the car park robbery that goes wrong, may have seemed as real and truthful as the interrogation scenes that are happening in the film's present, but they were not - they could never happened as we saw them.

The thriller genre leads us to expect a last minute denouement, with surprises, red herrings and loose ends for much of the time, but there are rules about what's permissible. Films (1), particularly Hollywood films, rarely portray the elusive and subjective nature of narrative truth and flashbacks are almost always rendered objectively. Here Singer gives us few clues (2) to the deception until the end of the film. In fact, almost all of the sights we see in flashback could be true, it's the dialogue that we finally realize must be lying. So how does Singer avoid the risk of disappointing the audience; of making them feel they've been tricked and that the film hasn't played fair?

Singer cleverly uses the realization sequence not only to reveal the deception, but also to provide an explanation that absolves him from blame. For what exactly is it that we have been watching during the narrated flashbacks, if not the truth? The answer is that the diegetic world weíve been watching in those flashback episodes is not some past objective reality, but the present subjective reality inside Kujanís head, as he visualizes the story that Kint is telling. It's not Singer's camera but Kujan's mind, cleverly manipulated by Kint, which has been lying to him, and to us.

So Singer shoots (3) the sequence in such a way as to emphasize that what weíre watching are Kujan's thoughts. He uses skilful camera movement and editing to make us see whatís going on in Kujanís mind and thus to identify with him as he realizes how he's been fooled. Our involvement in his realization means we end up feeling what Kujan feels - a sudden rush of insight. The effect is to make us think, as Kujan does, that it's Kint who has tricked us, not Singer. We end up saying 'Yes, how clever, Kint made it all up to fool me (Kujan)' rather than 'No, how annoying, Singer made it all up to fool me (the spectator in the audience)'.

It's worth pointing out that up to this point in the film we've been led to identify with the 'usual suspects', particularly Kint, rather than with Kujan, who's presented as an overbearing man bullying Kint. 'I'm smarter than you, you're stupid and weak' he says to Kint. We have an automatic alignment with Kint because he's been the narrator of the flashbacks. Singer therefore has to work hard to switch our allegiance to Kujan.

Kint is not called 'Verbal' Kint for nothing. He's woven his fiction on the fly during the interrogation. But the story has not come out of thin air. In a neat reversal of the usual detective thriller, where the police find clues at the crime scene, here the criminal finds clues at the police station! The room in which he's been interrogated, the office of Sergeant Rubin, played by Dan Hedaya, is an untidy mess. One wall, the wall that Kint has been facing, is covered with a large pinboard to which dozens of pictures, memos and other sheets of paper are pinned. Just before the realization sequence, Rubin says to Kujan, describing his office:

"It all has a system, Dave. It makes sense when you look at it right, you just gotta stand back from it."

We've been shown this board (4) many times throughout the film. What we've taken as an essentially irrelevant set of props - those papers pinned to the board - are not contingent at all. These mise-en-scène elements are deliberate props for the whole film. A large part of the realization sequence is taken up with carefully framed shots of these elements so that we do 'look at it right', so 'it makes sense', so we see 'it all has a system'. In fact in a very real sense, the pinboard is the big picture.

At the start of the sequence, Kujan, sitting on Rubin's desk drinking his coffee and staring at the pinboard, gets the first inkling of how he's been tricked. We see the expression on his face change from a knowing smile to a sudden frown (shots 1 and 3) (5) and he drops the cup of coffee he's drinking (shot 4). The next three shots (shots 5-7) are close-ups of the cup falling and breaking in slow-motion on the floor. Singer uses this slow-motion effect to alter our perception of time. (6) The dilation of time mirrors Kujan's heightened senses, the way his brain is racing so fast that he sees the world in slow-motion too. This shift in perception is one we all recognize - we speak of 'seeing the penny drop' - as a sign of dawning realization. We find ourselves asking the question 'what has he seen?'. Singer then shows us (shots 9-13), slowly zooming in on three words on the manufacturer's label on the pinboard, 'Skokie','IL' and 'Quartet' as we hear Kint's voice saying "when I was in a barber shop quartet in Skokie, Illinois", something he said right at the beginning of the interrogation. Kint's first lie has just been revealed.

The slowing down of time lasts through the whole sequence. It may occupy seventy-five seconds on the screen, but what we're experiencing is just a few seconds of thought in Kujan's mind. Just after that first lie is revealed, the soundtrack (over shots 15 and 16) has a voice (actually Keaton's) saying 'What we must do is think, think back'. Of course, this is exactly what Kujan is doing, and what Singer wants us to do too.

He illustrates Kint's skilful weaving of narrative by showing us the clues as Kujan sees them on the wall, intercut with flashes of episodes from the story where Kint has used them as narrative elements. This recapitulation reveals to us the lies Kint has told, and just where he got the ideas for them. More importantly, by the way it's edited and shot, it emphasizes again and again that we are watching Kujan's imagination at work.

Singer shows us all this very rapidly, giving us just barely enough time to absorb each clue before rushing to the next - there are fifty-six cuts in the space of seventy-five seconds, many of them lasting less than a second. The rapidity of the cutting, intended to match the way Kujan's mind is darting about, ensures we don't have a chance to fall out of the psychological state we've been pushed into.

Many of the shots in this sequence have the camera slowly panning across or zooming in on the pinboard (e.g. shots 18-20 and 44-51) focussing our attention on what Kujan has noticed. As well as the visual cuts, the soundtrack is similarly fractured, cutting between excerpts from the interrogation and key snatches of dialogue from flashbacks. For much of the sequence there's also non-diegetic music on the soundtrack which has a repetitive, hypnotic quality.

At key points we are shown specific instances where Kint has lied about the names of places and characters in his story. The first, in shots 9-13, has already been mentioned. Others occur in shots 17-22 ('Bricks Marlin'), 22-27 ('Redfoot'), 33-34 ('Guatemala') and finally in shots 54-56 ('Kobayashi'). Each time on the soundtrack we hear an audio excerpt from a flashback, with someone saying the name, often several times, as we are shown it visually in extreme close-up. These backward references continually remind us that we're being shown memories - Kujan's memories - of the interrogation.

Throughout there are quick cuts back to close-ups that slowly zoom in on Kujan's face (e.g. shots 12, 21, 32 and 53). These slow zoom shots, centred on Kujan's eyes, literally draw us into his brain (7) and reinforce the psychological effect of the episode. As we watch realization dawning on him it dawns on us, strengthening our identification with him.

Shot 37 is another key point in the sequence. It shows a frontal mid-shot of a figure, faced masked by smoke, firing a gun. The shot is followed by shots of deaths or dead faces, first Keaton (shot 38), then the Argentinian (shot 39), then Fenster (shot 40) and finally Hockney (shot 41). Shot 37 lasts just 9 frames, just over a third of a second, but within it there is a section just two frames long when the smoke clears and we can see that it's Kint, (8) as Soze, firing a gun in his left (crippled) hand. Such a subliminal shot, lasting less than a tenth of a second, is unlikely to register in our conscious mind, but it may play a part in heightening the sense of shock we feel around this point in the sequence, helping us realize that Kint killed them all.

At the end of the sequence (shots 54-56) Kujan's realization is complete when he sees that Kint has used the manufacturer's name on the bottom of a coffee cup, Kobayashi, as the name of Soze's right-hand man. The soundtrack over the beginning of shot 56 is a flashback to a point earlier in the interrogation where Kujan is shouting 'Convince me, convince me!' at Kint. Ironically that's exactly what Kint did, but with lies rather than the truth. This shot, a zoom that ends with the name almost filling the screen, lasts almost 6 seconds, by far the longest in the sequence. There's a clear sense of an approaching climax, both in the long visual zoom and in the rising crescendo of the non-diegetic music on the soundtrack.

By the end of shot 56, having now revealed all, Singer has to do two things. He must reverse the time-dilation effect so that time flows at normal rate and also drag us out of Kujan's mind to show us what is going on in the objective present. He achieves both ends by using sound and camera effects. The music suddenly ends with a violent, explosive chord (9) right at the end of the shot. At this point Singer pans the camera across the room violently (shot 57). These two events jerk us out of the trance-like state the sequence has lulled us into. In fact the whip pan is so violent that the room is just a blur, and we see Kujan too as a blur, as though he were Superman, as he blunders from the room.

All the while a fax machine has been slowly printing out Kint's picture, but Kujan rushes past it. He doesn't need to know what it will show - an identikit picture of Keyser Soze's which looks just like Kint. Singer shows it to us, but in an offhand way. We didn't need to be shown it either, we knew by then what it would show, we've so identified with Kujan that we know just what he knows.

In the final shots of the film, as Kujan stands outside the police station desperately looking for Kint, we cut to Kint limping along the street. In a long tracking shot of his feet as he walks we see him suddenly discarding his limp as he crosses a road, then in mid shot we see his left arm as it suddenly regains movement too. The gold lighter we see him holding, which he's just been given back as he collected his confiscated belongings in the police station, is the lighter we saw in the hand of Keyser Soze in the film's opening scene, just before he shot Keaton. Finally we realize the full scale of Kint's achievement in deception, for which Spacey won an Oscar of course.

Shot Sequence:

Many of the shots in the sequence are just a few frames long, so the timings given here are approximate.

Shot

Time (secs)

Visual Description

Key Soundtrack Elements

1

0

Kujanís face in close-up

Repetitive, dream-like music starts

2

2

Pinboard close-up zoom centred on the word "Quartet"

 

3

4

Kujanís face in close-up

 

4

6

Kujanís hand as he drops his coffee cup

 

5

7

Vertical shot of the coffee cup falling to the floor and breaking

 

6

8

Close-up version of the last part of shot 5

 

7

9

Horizontal shot, at floor level, of the cup breaking

 

8

12

Zoom into close-up of Kujanís face

 

9

14

Zoom into close-up of the word "Quartet"

 

10

15

Zoom into close-up of Kujanís face

"Convince me"

11

17

Close-up zoom towards the words "Quartet, Skokie, IL"

"Back when I was in that barberís Ö

12

18

Zoom into close-up of Kujanís face

shop quartet Ö

13

20

Zoom into extreme close-up of "Quartet, Skokie, IL"

in Skokie, Illinois"

14

22

Mid-shot of the pinboard

 

15

23

Close-up of part of the pinboard

"What we need to do is think Ö

16

24

Extreme close-up of part of the pinboard

think back"

17

25

Extreme close-up of Kujanís face

"Bricks Marlin"

18

26

Pan across the pinboard showing a man standing beside a large marlin heís just caught

 

19

27

Pan across pinboard in extreme close-up

 

20

29

Pan across a picture on the pinboard

 

21

30

Zoom into close-up of Kujanís face

 

22

31

Close-up as the camera tilts down a list on the pinboard, revealing the names "BRICKS" and "REDFOOT"

"Some guy in California, his name is Redfoot"

23

33

Close-up shot of the Redfoot character

 

24

35

Kujanís face

"What about Ö

25

37

Close-up of the word "REDFOOT"

Redfoot?"

26

38

Close-up of the Redfoot character

 

27

39

Close-up of the word "REDFOOT" again, then pan to picture of a very obese person

"Big fat guy, I mean orca fat"

28

40

Close-up of face of obese person

 

29

41

Apparent wipe (10) to shot of Kobayashi

 

30

42

Slightly different shot of Kobayashi

 

31

43

Close-up of Kobayashiís face

"Kobayashi"

32

44

Zoom into close-up of Kujanís face

 

33

45

Close-up of the pinboard, with a pan and tilt to the word "Guatemala"

"Picking beans in Guatemala"

34

47

Extreme close-up of "GUATEMALA"

 

35

48

Extreme close-up of Kujanís face

 

36

50

Keatonís face

 

37

51

9 frame shot of Kint, his face obscured by smoke, holding a gun in his left (crippled) hand and firing it. For two frames his face is clearly visible

 

38

51

Shot of Keaton falling back dead on the boat

 

39

52

Shot of the Argentinian being shot in a cabin on the boat

 

40

53

Close-up shot of Fensterís dead face when his body was found on the beach

 

41

53

Close-up shot of Hockneyís dead face

 

42

53

Extreme close-up of Kujanís face

 

43

54

Close-up shot of Keatonís dead face

 

44

55

Extreme close-up pan across the pinboard

 

45

56

Pan across another part of pinboard

 

46

57

Mid-shot of Kint walking away from the camera on the boat

 

47

58

Pan across the pinboard

 

48

59

Pan across the pinboard

 

49

59

Mid-shot of Kint walking away from the camera on the boat

 

50

60

Pan across pinboard

 

51

61

Pan across pinboard

 

52

62

Mid-shot of Kint walking away from the camera on the boat

 

53

63

Zoom into close-up of Kujanís face

 

54

65

Zoom toward broken piece of cup on the floor, showing whatís written on the bottom

"I am Mr. Kobayashi"

55

67

Extreme close-up of Kujanís face

"Kobayashi"

56

68

Further zoom toward the cup base until the word "Kobayashi" fills the screen

"Convince me, convince me". Music reaches a rising crescendo

57

74

Whip pan shot following Kujan as he rushes out of Rubinís office ending with a tilt down to the fax machine

Explosive bang at the start of the pan

 

81

End of sequence

 

Script Excerpt describing the Sequence:

This is taken from a June 1994 (Yellow) version of Christopher McQuarrie's script. The actual shooting script was very similar, though there are some differences.

Scene 149 INT. RABIN'S OFFICE

Kujan still stares at the bulletin board.

SUDDENLY, Kujan's face changes. He leans in closer to the bulletin board and squints his eyes. His face changes again. First a look of puzzlement, then confusion - finally realization.

The coffee cup tumbles from his hand. It hits the floor with the SMASH of cheap porcelain. Coffee splatters everywhere.

Rabin snaps out of his droning and looks up in surprise.

KUJAN'S P.O.V.

Kujan is staring not at what is on the bulletin board, but at the bulletin board itself.

His eyes follow the aluminum frame, mounted firmly to the wall. One might note its sturdy construction and its convenient size. Big enough to hold a lifetime of forgotten and disregarded notes and facts. Years of police trivia that has been hung and forgotten with the intention of finding a use for it all someday. One might want such a bulletin board for one's self. One would look to see who makes such a bulletin board.

Kujan's eyes are locked on a metal plate bearing the manufacturer's name.

It reads: QUARTET - SKOKIE, ILLINOIS

Kujan's eyes flash all over the bulletin board. He finds a picture of Rabin in the far corner. He stands beside a scale in fishing gear. He proudly holds a hand out to his freshly caught marlin. His eyes skim quickly over and stop on an eight and a half by eleven inch fax sheet of what must be a THREE HUNDRED POUND BLACK MAN. Kujan glazes over his name, it is irrelevant. His aliases stand out.

Slavin, BRICKS, Shank, REDFOOT, Thee, Rooster...

KUJAN'S EYES WIDEN with sudden realization. He runs for the door. His foot crushes the broken pieces of Rabin's coffee cup. The cup that hovered over Verbal's head for two hours.

Kujan is in too much of a hurry to notice the two words printed on the jagged piece that had been the bottom of the cheap mug.

KOBAYASHI PORCELAIN.

Footnotes:

  1. Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' (1950) is the obvious, non-Hollywood exception. William Golding's novel 'Pincher Martin' (1956) has a related twist revealed in the final paragraphs. (Note this essay was written before the release of M. Night Shyamalan's 'The Sixth Sense'). (back)
  2. There are some clues throughout the film. It's Kint, not Keaton, who fires the first fatal shot in the car park robbery. For a seemingly timid man whose left hand appears useless and whose right couldn't work a cigarette lighter earlier in the film, the speed, precision and resolve he shows is surprising. We're also told more than once that he's a confidence trickster with a talent for telling stories. (back)
  3. The script excerpt covering the realization sequence is given above. It provides an outline of what the sequence has to show, but not much advice to the director on how to do so. (back)
  4. In the first five minutes of the film, when we first see Kint sitting in Rubin's office, there's a long close-up shot of him as he stares at the wall. We see his eyes flicking from side to side as he reads what's there, though then we didn't know why. (back)
  5. The shot numbers in the text refer to the shot by shot description above. (back)
  6. This is a curious, almost counter-intuitive, psychological effect. In TV series such as 'The Six Million Dollar Man' and 'Kung Fu' slow-motion was used for a similar purpose, to emphasize how fast things are happening. (back)
  7. Truffaut, quoted in Peter Graham's book 'The New Wave' (Viking 1968), says, "The cinema becomes subjective when the actor's gaze meets that of the audience". (back)
  8. To see this it's necessary to view the sequence slowed down, frame by frame (e.g. on a VCR). (back)
  9. Combined with the rising crescendo, the overall effect is very similar to the ending of 'A Day in the Life', the final track of the Beatles 'Sergeant Pepper' album. (back)
  10. Actually the wipe effect is caused by someone walking across the scene in front of Kobayashi. (back)

Back to Film Studies Page