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Why "The Usual Suspects" doesn't work

From Joseph Brunetta, Santa Rosa, CA:

There's been a lot reader mail of late over your original responses to some films, particularly "The Usual Suspects." I would like to say thank you for going against the grain of the grand praise this film got. I'm most grateful for your 1.5 star review of "The Usual Suspects." People adore that movie. It's a cult hit. It won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. So since it has made it's splash I have to defend why the film doesn't work to many.

"Suspects" doesn't make narrative sense to me. The film is told in flashback via the Kevin Spacey character, and like a lot of movies with flashbacks what's told concerns a lot of events peripheral to the character's story (to give background information on the event told), such as conversations between characters that didn't involve the Spacey character (and which he wouldn't know about). Such events wouldn't be told by the Spacey character to the cop questioning him without the cop stopping to ask why Spacey would know, so we can only assume that the movie is just helping the audience better understand what Spacey is telling the cop.

So in the end when it's revealed that the story told was a lie, down to the character's names, by Spacey's character all the peripheral business doesn't make sense (since in the film's world it doesn't exist).

What works for something, like, "Saving Private Ryan" (in which we are given information on the soldiers who saved Ryan apart from what Ryan may know to give us perspective of the sacrifice they made that Ryan can only imagine) doesn't work for "The Usual Suspects" (since the peripherals in that film are not valid since the events did not exist within the film's story).

If the movie had a tighter narrative, that Spacey's story told was all from his perspective and concerned things he witnessed so as to legitimize the surprise finale, the movie would make sense (but it would still be a boring gangster movie, just with a legit twist at the end).

So for years since it's release I had to fight my point of view on "The Usual Suspects," from film buffs in high school who thought it was the bible, from film study and English courses in college (since my English instructor was teaching it to address narrative in film he wasn't happy with my dismissive perspective on the film). So with education I've seen the film many times than I would have liked. In each case I got the same response: that I obviously don't know what I'm talking about ("Everyone loves the movie!" "It won the Oscar for Best Screenplay! How can the screenplay be completely off?!")

My only back-up on this film for years (apart from reading a few years ago that Kevin Smith thought it was one of the most overrated films of the 90's) was your one and a half star review. If my perspective wasn't enough for them I'd just say "Hey, Roger Ebert didn't like it." It might not have got me the winning hand in the argument but at least I felt there was somebody out there with a great mind who was just as displeased with the film as I was (even if not for the same reasons).

Regardless of the puzzlement some might write you about these movies I do appreciate you going against the grain. Such a review can keep a reader sane in the face of opposition.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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