One of my favorite thematic plot devices in the medium of film has been “inner story mirrors outer story” (especially across epistemic layers). Bryan Singer’s 1995 neo-noir classic The Usual Suspects is told through a series of flashbacks – and manages to use this thematic device to great advantage.
WARNING: There be spoilers here. If you’re one of the small group of people who haven’t actually watched The Usual Suspects yet, go watch it, then read on. Seriously. Don’t spoil this for yourself.
Much in the same way that other neo-noir films, like David Fincher’s Fight Club, have done, The Usual Suspects relies very heavily on the narrative fallacy implied by a narrator who takes the role of a liar. There are many sequences which could be examined in this film, but I’d like to pay attention to one in particular.
Agent Kujan has just finished “breaking” Verbal Kint, and has forced him to confront the realization that he has been played from the very start by the criminal mastermind Dean Keaton:
Except that’s not what happened. Kujan falls victim to the narrative fallacy brought on by the “facts” presented to him by an unreliable narrator: Verbal.
Verbal walks out of the room, and Kujan goes back to sipping his coffee and engaging in smalltalk with Jeff Rabin. We’re presented with a medium shot of Kujan, drawing in very slightly as he drinks his coffee.
The reverse shot reveals something that we’ve paid little to no attention to throughout the course of the entire interrogation sequence – primarily because the limited depth of field presented by the DP hasn’t allowed us to see what Verbal is seeing. We’re preoccupied with his story, much like Agent Kujan is. Now, we see the forest through the trees:
We reverse to a much closer shot of Kujan, still drawing in slowly. We have to get into his head so that we can identify with the realization he’s in the process of having:
… and we reverse to a much closer version of the reverse shot. There are a lot of pieces of information on that corkboard, but Kujan is focusing on the label, with a very particular piece of information on it.
Reverse back to Kujan, who is now unhearing everything Verbal just told him over the course of the film:
Now we begin the interesting part of the sequence; Kujan is so startled that he drops his coffee cup. It simply slips out of his fingers (much as Verbal, who he practically had in the palm of his hand, just did mere moments ago):
We experienced the coffee cup dropping to the floor from three different observational points – and the cup shattered completely differently each time. Even though the effective outcome was the same (the cup is broken, there’s liquid on the floor), what actually happened was completely different, based on our observational viewpoint. This is realized through the discontinuous editing which Singer uses to emphasize the disparate nature of the angles we’re seeing of the event in question.
It is essentially a microcosm for the idea that the point of view with which a story is presented completely shapes our perception of that story. We fell victim to the same narrative fallacy as Agent Kujan, as we attempted to stitch together facts and images from a story told by an unreliable narrator – and most of us were taken in by the same “premature enlightenment” as Kujan.
(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Spelling Films International, Blue Parrot, Bad Hat Harry Productions, Rosco Film GmbH, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)