“Who's Keyser Söze!?”
“What’s in the box!?”
You can stop screaming, mid-90’s detectives. I've got your answer right here (in the form of an extremely belated double movie review). I’d say spoiler alert, but as both movies in question are now legally of age – 18 this year! - I figure I can spoil with impunity.
Why dig into a pair of cold cases like this, you ask? Easy: I’m desperate for attention and I’ll review the favorite movie (The Usual Suspects) of anyone (Rob Kirby) who follows me on Twitter. Also, I have a weakness for analyzing 90’s movies (among other cultural artifacts) – a dusty VHS cover is my idea of nose candy. And there are important lessons to be learned, gosh pound it!
I’d review Suspects on its own, but I find that a movie is easier to break down with a companion, kind of like those cheetahs at the zoo that have dog friends to keep them in line. Se7en is a natural fit for this role: both movies released in 1995, both featuring Kevin Spacey as the villain, both crime thrillers, both famous (and much imitated) for twist endings, both playing fast and loose with genre expectations and religious themes.
1995 was a watershed year for movies. As much as movies like Jaws and Star Wars get credit for changing the Hollywood landscape back in the late 70s, it wasn’t until the mid-90s that the changing of the guard was complete. In the 80’s it was still possible for a Lifetime movie like On Golden Pond to rule the box office. By the early 90’s, special effects extravaganzas like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 were starting to flex their muscle and crowd out the lower-concept hits of yesteryear. Then in 1994 came the swan song: Forrest Gump, a sentimental non-action dramedy, somehow took the box office crown. But come 1995, Toy Story took pole position, and the big budget action epics haven’t looked back since. All that to say that by the mid-90’s, if you wanted to make a splash you had to have some kind of visceral wow factor.
Suspects and Se7en both embraced the wow or bust philosophy with near unprecedented gusto (Silence of the Lambs had beaten them to the punch-up of the crime genre, but the body was still fresh). While Pixar was breaking the technology barrier to put out the first fully CGI movie, the writers of Suspects and Se7en were in the story structure workshop trying to build a better jack-in-the-box thriller, fine-tuning every cog and gear in the script to goose the impact of the inevitable reveal. They were undeniably successful in their goals: Suspects won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Se7en made it into the box office top 10.
All that success did not come without some collateral damage. Selling out for the twist ending in these cases meant selling many of the other story elements short. Consider one of the golden oldies of the crime thriller genre: The Maltese Falcon. More than 70 years after the fiction, the shocking reveals in the third act pack all the punch of a geriatric baby, but the delicious moral ambiguities of the story and the rich characters are still intoxicating. In contrast, Suspects and, to a lesser extent, Se7en deploy their characters more like one of the automatons in Geppetto’s workshop, following predetermined, diligently synchronized paths. Moral ambiguities are present, but only as decorative detail carved on the surface.
The various Spaceys are examples of delicately crafted but thoroughly artificial characters. Even their names are conspicuously made-up: Verbal Kint, Keyser Söze, John Doe. Keyser Söze in particular reminds me of the Rollo Tomasi moniker Guy Pearce made up to give a name to his father’s nameless killer in LA Confidential (another Spacey movie). The artificiality goes well beyond their names. They lack consciences or vulnerabilities– all that would just gum up the works of their convoluted and impossibly cunning plans.
Söze suffers no ethical qualms and meets no real challenge in conducting his crime and murder spree. Other than the challenge to his ego (the detective declares that he’s smarter) that apparently motivates him to lead the detective (and the audience) on the thrilling goose chase, Söze does his screenwriter master’s bidding with all the soulless efficiency of a T-1000, or, given the amount of plot twisting required, a non-alcoholic bending unit. John Doe is another robot, matter-of-factly sacrificing his life to produce a thrilling conclusion and keep the plot’s gears grinding towards perfect synchronicity with the seven cardinal sins.
The rest of the cast (with exceptions in the case of Se7en) are kept to fixed paths. Pitt of course is a vessel of Wrath. Baldwin the Younger and co. never tread far outside stereotype – the insignificant exception being Benicio del Toro, who was allowed to riff freely on the basis that his character’s only function was to die. Even Gabriel Byrne, the putative conscience of the story, appears to be nothing more than a common crook once everything is revealed. The desire to go straight, the love angle with the criminal attorney, the hesitance to kill, the friendship with Kint – all of it was just a red cape (or herring) Söze was waving to incite the bullish detective to waste all his energy “proving” that Byrne (his longtime nemesis) was a bad guy (which the screenwriter doesn’t seem to care about answering one way or the other. He’s wholly concerned with establishing Söze as the baddest guy).
While the characters dutifully adhere to their routes, the abundant moral and religious themes get plastered onto the walls of the jack-in-the box as decoration. Suspects’ Charles Baudelaire quote “the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist” is pregnant with religious and philosophical implications – it’s a quote from a 19th century French poet about the Devil for crying out loud! None of those implications are explored in Suspects – it’s there because it sounds slick (just like the title, lifted from Casablanca) and because it fits the big twist so well. Kint’s line “I believe in God, but I’m afraid of Keyser Söze” neatly sums up this topsy-turvy world where God takes a backseat to the sleek super-villain with the cooler-than-real name.
Se7en takes its metaphysical content more seriously, but I’d argue that’s more the stylistic effect of a much darker tone than proof of more philosophical rigor. As evidence, I present John Doe’s thoroughly unconvincing confession of Envy in the finale. Chopping off a pretty lady’s head to inspire Wrath is not indicative of envy, nor are any of John Doe’s other crimes. His conduct is characterized by a dearth of emotion and an absolute dedication to completing his riddle. The clumsy handling of Envy reveals the conceit: the cardinal sins have been chopped up and sanded down into a set of serious-colored, neatly interlocking plot devices. Their ultimate importance is how much force and flair they contribute to the final spring.
Returning now to the questions raised so vociferously by the detectives. Who is Keyser Söze and what is in the box? Technically speaking, the answer is Jack – a disembodied head, covered with all sorts of charmingly gruesome details, made up to look like a devil, and shot out at the audience to elicit the greatest reaction. When the shock wears off, however, ankle-biting critics like me are left to pick up the detectives’ line of questioning, though no one is left on screen to answer. Who do you mean by Keyser Söze? What was in the box, really? What does it signify? To which the body of work might as well reply, in the manner of a mother shushing her overeager child on Christmas Eve, “It’s a surprise.” Nothing more, nothing less.