The Usual Suspects: the meaning of Keyser Söze’s role

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One day, few years ago, a friend asked me what The Usual Suspects was about. He was sure I already mentioned it to him, and he was not wrong. Two weeks earlier I stumbled in the movie almost by accident, and for days I did nothing else than talking about it. When that friend asked me, I suddenly realized that I have not one, not two, but three possible answers.

First possible way to answer: I could have told him that it’s a 1995 comedy film, masterfully directed by Bryan Singer and equally masterfully played by, among others, a wonderful Kevin Spacey and a young man full of hopes named Benicio del Toro. I would have definitely mentioned the two Academy Awards won by the film, Kevin Spacey as best supporting actor and Christopher McQuarrie for best original screenplay. I could have added then that it’s a special kind of thriller and then quickly change topic, in order to not spoil, ’cause you know how those conversations end up. Considering The Usual Suspects some sort of essential masterpiece of contemporary cinema, I would have been sorry to spoil the party.

The Usual Suspects (1995) - Original Trailer

In order to not report what can be easily found on Wikipedia (and bore him to death), I could have – and here’s the second possible answer – briefly summarized the plot. However, this is not a Jennifer Aniston movie where the plot can be exaplined in few words: I found myself suddenly in trouble in building a short summary of the film. The Usual Suspects needs to be seen, not told, because of its bizarre plot with constant twists and turns, its unusual nature that mixes noir, thriller and horror with surprising confidence. It’s a movie that cannot be easily explained in words.

So here is what I actually replied to my curious friend: “Almost certainly Keyser Söze is not the devil, but he’s still the closest thing to Devil we could find on Earth.” Immediately I had the sensation that somehow I sopke with some manic excitement and I found confirmation in his eyes wide open. He actually asked nothing more, and I have achieved my goal: the next day he was overheating as well. That night he watched The Usual Suspects three times in a row.

Keyser Söze

There are dozens of novels, movies and that have the devil among the protagonists. But The Usual Suspects is not one of these. Keyser Söze is not properly the devil or a demon. It is not a malignant, supernatural creature that doesn’t belong to this world, with extraordinary powers, contrary to the  basic physical laws, able to disappear in a snap of fingers. A figure with these characteristics is for example Mr. Woland from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, forced to hide his supernatural nature in a human identity. That novel depicts the story of Satan, who messes up Moscow in order to find a partner for Satan’s great spring ball. As I said to my friend, Keiser Söze is not Satan, but it’s the closest thing we can find on Earth. It’s the Deus Ex Machina of the events in the movie and belongs to that group of fictional characters that, despite being human, possess some of the distinctive features of the Devil. And this is nosecret: the movie itself is full of quotes about the devil.

There are two of main characteristics, proper of the Devil: one is the ability to mask his true identity in the eyes of the world, supported by excellent speech and acting skills; the other one is a practically foolproof foresight. Roger “Verbal” Kint, questioned by agent David Kujan about Keyser Söze identity, poses as a poor, lame newyorker, a second category daft criminal, terrified by that name. The play is so perfect that the cop can’t help but fall into his trap, releasing Kint. Spacey is evil, nothing to say, and he tricks also who’s watching the movie. The damage is done, and he can also provoke: just after he’s released, Kint shouts his “fucking cops” and then disappeares, in a little more than a snap of fingers. The irony never leaves the protagonist. At some point of the interrogation, that cult quote comes up:

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn't exist

Similarly, and this shows Kint’s devilish nature, Bulgakov’s Mr. Woland disseminates his conversations with precise clues about his identity. There is irony in this, and a fine mockery of the others’ good faith. Mr. Woland is a master of rhetoric and acting, he can talk about the devil while being it, and no one will ever notice. Kint is not the devil but he’s not very far, and Keyser Söze is the name he gave to his myth.

Another character similar to Keyser Söze is Lorne Malvo, from Fargo‘s first season. With him, we come to the second demonic characteristics that we mentioned above: the foresight. Both Malvo and Söze are incredibly precise in preparing their criminal plans and completing them without the slightest hitch, leaving nothing to chance. Both characters have the ability to predict in advance, with great accuracy, the consequences of their actions, close to an omniscience which normally belongs to God. Or to the Devil.

Lorne Malvo and Keyser Söze are certainly only men, but sometimes we forget that and observing their crimes, their lies and their performances, we feel like we are watching the Devil in person.

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