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The Ambiguous Ending of The Usual Suspects…

This post is somewhat prompted by an interesting discussion over at MCarter’s review of The Usual Suspects, concerning the ending. Some people remarked that while they were impressed with the ambiguity of the film, they thought that the ending was just a little bit too clear cut. I have no problem with a definite ending to a film, but I’m not so sure that The Usual Suspects is as open and shut as it might seem. But wait! you protest, as someone who has seen the film, That ending was fairly clear. Maybe it was. But maybe it wasn’t.

The highest quality photo of the "real" Keyser Soze...

The highest quality photo of the "real" Keyser Soze...

Note: Seeing as how this is a discussion on the ending of The Usual Suspects, it will obviously contain spoilers on the film. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie. Really. Go, rent or borrow or buy the movie, watch it and come back – and give us your thoughts. The Usual Suspects is a movie you owe it to yourself not to ruin.

Right, to state my position clearly for the record, I believe that Kevin Spacey’s character is Keyzer Soze. In fact, the Word of God is that Kint is Soze – but we won’t let the word of the director or writer sway us, in fact I think they’d be happy that it was still generating so much debate and controversy. It’s the best fit, given the ending and all the factors that line up:

  • the artist’s depiction of Soze from the burn victim
  • the fact that ‘Verbal’ (Kint’s nickname) is a derivative of ‘to speak’ (the English translation of Soze)
  • the fact that Kint collects Soze’s lighter from evidence at the end of the film
  • the fact that Kint’s backstory seems to be completely made up
  • Kint faked a limp

That’s a lot of evidence, but any lawyer worth their salt knows that a huge amount of that is circumstantial. First of all, the only thing those last two points go to demonstrate are that Kint misrepresents himself throughout the film. If I put on a Southern accent that doesn’t immediately mean I’m a crime lord trying to hide my identity, it just means I’m trying to hide my identity. What we do know about Kint is that he actually exists. He has a police record. The man sitting in the chair has a mugshot that corresponds to a petty confidence man who already has a criminal record. It’s relatively easy to construct a complex narrative while sitting in a police station, but faking police records is a different kettle of fish – even if he is protected from ‘up on high by the prince of darkness’.

Assuming that we trust the police officers (at least more than we trust Kint), he has been arrested before. So a ruthless Turkish criminal mastermind (and we have to assume that part of Kint’s story is true since it takes a non-national to recognise him) is arrested as a petty con man in America? He’s that careless and stupid? And he’s running these scams himself when he has a whole criminal empire running underneath him? I’m skeptical.

Oh, but what about the ID? Well, keep in mind the only person who definitively knew what Soze looked like was killed in his own cabin. The burn victim in the hospital bed is only basing his identification off events he witnessed on the boat. It’s more than likely that Kint did go on a killing spree on the boat (or at least was involved), and if somebody caused that much damage while I was ferrying a man who was wanted by Soze, I’d jump to the conclusion that the guy shooting up the place was Soze as well. The whole point of the movie is that we shouldn’t trust what we see – why should we trust what a burnt mobster doped up the gills on morphine saw? We know Kint was there, so it’s little surprise the guy saw him.

We know that Kint was involved – that much is obvious from the ending. Even if he isn’t Soze himself, he’s very trusted – that’s not really a job you give to just a minor lieutenant. That would explain the lighter – maybe a gift, maybe a symbol of rank. The nickname could be simple misdirection – it’s really unlikely he gave himself the nickname of ‘Verbal’, because… well, when was the last time you successfully gave yourself a nickname? His involvement beyond lying to the police and being involved in the massacre on the boat is all purely circumstantial. There’s no way it would hold up in a court room. There’s certainly room to believe that Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint isn’t Keyser Soze. So, if he isn’t, who is?

Pick one...

Pick one...

We know that Soze must exist – as there was a man who could identify him. We know that he’s Turkish and we also know that he likes to handle things at a distance, through minions that you don’t know are minions and may not even know themselves that they are minions. Given that the only part of the story we know happened is the ending (as Kint is an unreliable narrator), we must put our emphasis there. The appearance of the man known as Kobayashi as Kint’s driver in the final moments stands out. Those paying attention during the reveal will know that Kobayashi isn’t the character’s real name – it’s taken from the bottom of a coffee cup. However, whatever his name, he does appear in Kint’s narrative, which makes it interesting – why not use his real name if you want to mask the lies with truth?

Kobayashi speaks with a foreign accent of some sort (though his English – being delivered by Pete Postlethwaite – is clear and educated). He’s a professional, working in law. He obviously feels comfortable enough in Soze’s organisation to make threats on his master’s behalf. His no-nonsense demeaner and calm and rational response to be threatened (threatening to kill the families of his attackers) call to mind Kint’s story about Soze in Turkey. Neither is afraid of death. Both operate at a distance from events that would allow them to gain the reputation of a spook or a ghost – an ethereal force driecting and controlling actions that even those involved in the actions aren’t completely aware of. Kobayashi makes a legitimate suspect if one rules out Kint.

There’s also the more obvious possibility (signposted by the film itself) that Keaton is Soze. It would suit his purpose for Kint to get caught – and really, why was he still there when the police arrived other than to be caught? – and to lie about Keaton’s death. That’s about all that stands in favour of Keaton as Soze. We see him shot at the start in what we must assume is an example of what actually happened (a dangerous assumption, I concede). There’s also the fact that – like Kint – he has an independently verified past. He was a cop in the NYPD. He went to prison. Sure, this is hardly definitive, but it would seem to rule him out as an international criminal mastermind.

I have one more ‘possible’ down on my list and it’s a longshot that I haven’t heard mentioned in discussions on the film. Soze wanted Kint to get caught. He wanted him brought in. If it wasn’t to create the myth of Keaton’s death, why else would it be? To further exaggerate the Soze legend? Perhaps. It’s still a hell of a risk to take for misdirection. It relies on complete faith in Kint while he’s in police custody (and trust is a rare commodity in these gangland circles) and also depends on the police not figuring out Kint is a big fish until he’s been released. Those are two huge gambits for so careful and discrete a figurehead to make purely for the purposes of muddying the water, right? Maybe not.

The entire film hinges on the initial police lineup involving at least McManus (as the man with the job), Keaton (as the fall guy) and Kint (as the inside man) – the film even draws attention to this. Who could engineer a police line-up? Who recorded Kint’s ‘confession’, even though it was inadmissible? Who ‘discovered’ Kint was Soze? Yep, it was US Customs Agent Dave Kujan. He interviewed Kint, but made sure it was recorded – and made sure that Rabin was listening. He rounded up Keaton for the line-up – he could have set up the others as well. He was the one who prompted Kint to name Keaton as Soze, which was at best a stopgap measure. Assuming Keaton’s body would be pulled from the water eventually, that theory would only be plausible for so long and only served to give the closure necessary to let Kint go. On the other hand, Kint as Soze? That could last forever. Now people know what Soze supposedly looks like, they’ll stop searching. If Soze did have unfinished business with other gangsters, or even if he likes to keep himself lowkey, Kint makes the perfect red herring.

The film keeps corruption as its core theme – even corruption in law enforcement. New York’s Finest Taxi Service is a bunch of corrupt police officers (and Keaton is an ex-corrupt cop), why not a corrupt customs official? It is Kujan who paints Kint as a nobody, a smalltime hustler despite his involvement in the massacre. Kujon is also one of the few characters to appear in both the present and in Kint’s narrative – taking Keaton in. The only other two – Kobayashi and Kint – are tied to Soze, why not Kujon? Theorists ascribe a lot of weight to Verbal being linked to the translation of Soze, but Kujon is slang for “evil person” in Indian. Of course, if we discount Keaton as a member of the NYPD, we should discount Kujon as a member of US Customs. It’s highly unlikely he’s from Turkey. Still, he’s never gone to prison, which makes it more likely he’s a criminal mastermind than Keaton and he’s a far-too-willing partner for Verbal’s dance.

I still lean with Verbal Kint. Perhaps I am too fond of Occam’s Razor, or perhaps I like the notion of Kevin Spacey as a mastermind, I don’t know. Still, I accept that the film is brilliantly ambiguous in its execution and more than a little ambiguous in its ending. We’ll never really know who Soze was, but we all have our suspects.

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17 Responses

  1. Accepting that Kint is Soze also requires us to treat Kujan as a reliable source. Is this a mistake? It doesn’t seem like one. He’s a hardass and a relentless detective who doesn’t take no for an answer. But how much do we REALLY know about him? This is clearly a man who can’t go to bed until he figures out a song title or the name of that guy he beat up in fifth grade. Isn’t it possible Kujan was so desperate to put a face to Soze that he connected all these random dots? Maybe it’s all a crazy coincidence. Though I too am a fan of Occam’s Razor, there are exceptions. Crazier coincidences happen every day in life.

    Points to ponder…

    • Kint is incredibly good at what he’s doing – talking. It’s possible he’s simply ad-libbing based off what he’s given. I’d have to watch it again, but I don’t think Soze becomes involved in his narrative in a major way until after Kujon mentions the myth to him. It’s possible a burnt and delirious sailor was recalling spook stories he was told about the devil by the name of Soze and the whole thing got blown out of proportion.

  2. Great article, really well constructed and thought out. It was actually me that started the debate by saying it have been better with a little more ambiguity at the end. Although I stand by my first statement it is clear I need to see the film again to clarify a few points in my own mind.

    One thing I would disagree with you on is: “We know that Soze must exist”. I actually think there is a possibility that he does not exist. His existence is mainly based on hearsay and conjecture. As far as the existence of a character in a film and how other characters come to believe in their existence, I leave you with one name: George Kaplan.

    • Good point. Given the only evidence that the eyewitness was on the boat comes from Verbal, and the eyewitness is the only person who has ever seen Soze, we don’t actually know that anyone has seen Soze (given the eyewitness might not exist). The Turkish sailor could have been using “Soze” as a term equivalent to “devil” (which does fit with how he’s a criminal spook story) and using it to describe the killer on the boat (almost certainly Kint was involved at least, even if he wasn’t alone).

      If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, maybe Kint’s greatest trick was convincing the world that Soze does.

      I love that there’s so much there that we can discuss the ending this deeply. 90% of other “twist” endings fall apart if you ever think them. This one coils in on itself.

  3. Good God I am rusty. This is a very good post and I realise I have not seen this in forever…but the first time round I was very impressed and at the time Spacey ranked in my 10 favourite supporting performances. I need to revisit it.

  4. interesting stuff Darren, if way over my head (yes, i had to google Occam’s Razor, and no, its not the new one from Gilette).

    • Sorry, I tend to forget that sometimes I can be quite esoteric with my little references and off-hand remarks. I’ve stuck a link in to the Wikipedia article on it for those interested.

  5. 1. It’s myth that he’s Turkish.
    2. why would Kujon want to put someone in his own spotlight?
    3. The bodies are shown as you go to the boat.
    4. In some of the movie posters the body bags have names on them apart from kint’s.
    5. Soze’ can be whio/what ever he wants because he is a myth.
    6. Kint sets himself up to be in a police line up with “The Usual Suspects” because he has a bone to pick with all of them.

    It is Kint. The least likely of all the suspects is a mastermind who gets the job done and “like that, dissapears” never to be seen again.
    Verbal is a made up name and so is Roger Kint. No records.

    Awesome film though (Y)

    Anyone else to add something?

  6. Kint was Soze. Here’s my theory: Everything told in the movie happened, though HOW it happened may have differed. Why a criminal mastermind would serve time for petty crimes is simple; To build a believable narrative as someone other than who he really was, that whole “The devil’s greatest trick” thing. How better to fool folks into thinking you don’t exist, than having a provable, verifiable existence as someone else? Keyser Soze HAS to exist, since the FBI agents at the hospital knew of him, and wouldn’t be so invested in a mere “spook” story. Also, Kujan couldn’t be Soze, as no one was more fooled or surprised at the end than him.

    • It all makes sense, and I concede that Occam’s Razor points to Kint as Soze. Truth be told, I don’t think I could make a compellinga rgument that it wasn’t Kint. This is really more of a thought experiment than a serious iron-clad argument. The surprise at the end is a big problem, but he was in an office and could be observed by those outside. Might be necessary to keep up the ruse. That’s stretching, of course, but I think it’s a fun (if hardly water-tight) alternative theory.

  7. Several things…I just watched the movie three times in a row. It stuck out awkwardly that years ago Keaton and Kint had been in jail together and that’s how Keaton remembered him. Why? What happened between them? Why would Soze allow himself to be arrested? If you watch it for minor details you’ll notice that the foreshadowing and hints are almost heavy handed, so to speak, from the beginning and the ending. The newspaper clippings linger a little too long on camera, much is made of both Kint’s left arm as is the focus on ‘Soze’s’ left arm (unspoken, just filming) and the camera dwells on it multiple times both at the beginning and the end. In fact at the end it’s almost a gigantic ironic hint. The awkward lifting of the hand to check the time, pulling the gun out with one hand, passing it over to the left to shoot, etc. Kint has tremendous control and steady aim when he shoots the guy in the garage whom Keaton is struggling with.
    That said, the scene is told by Kint only so we don’t really know for sure what occurred. He’s detailing things in his narrative he could only have known from Keaton, or McManus or all the random people on the boat. He could not be all places at once.
    It’s also heavy handed, and that’s for lack of a better term because I love this movie and am not crticizing, but Kint makes an unnecessary point of not being able to manage his lighter and Kujon has to do it for him. Kujon already sees him as an ineffectual cripple, so it must be for our benefit, a Raymond Chandler-esque attempt to bring the audience into the subtextual hints. The film starts with matches being lit, yet there are lighters. We do not know that is Soze’s lighter btw. We only know the lighter is related to the left handedness of the supposed killer, if Keaton is even dead.
    It’s a hint and may not be the actual lighter.
    I don’t think Kujon is involved.
    What do you make of Keaton mentioning that he shivved someone to Redfoot. Is it just a veiled threat? Who was it? What was the motivation?
    When Kint says these men would never bend over for anyone, why does he say that? He said he knows that in the present tense, yet they did bend over (not in visceral sense) for Soze. Is he saying they’d never talk? What was the point of that ‘observation?’ Did Fenster really take off? OMG he was so funny in questioning when the detectives told him McManus was telling a very different story and he asked, ‘is it the one about the hooker with dysenterry?’
    They were all brilliant but McManus was perfectly cast by Baldwin and though they were all perfectly suited, he really stole some scenes.
    I did notice that though the people on the boat were supposed to be Argentinian, Kint asked what language it was and Keaton dismissed him by guessing Russian and ignored him when Kint suggested it was Hungarian. Then a few spoke Spanish. That seemed to be some awkward details.
    The whole light in Hockney’s face when he opened the $$case and got shot reminded me of Pulp Fiction. Random pointless observation. I enjoyed everyone’s ideas.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Kint is… I just love the discussion that this generates.

      • I also got to thinking something that may be moot, Kint says Keaton was shot in the back and the head. Charred or not, those wounds would still be there. But nevermind because that doesn’t mean it IS Keaton’s shot up carcass. How does Arkosh Kovash fit in beyond being burned? Giancarlo Esposito’s character recognizes him, why? (how, also, he’s raw skin).

  8. If you pause the movie at the end where Soze shoots Keaton, it’s pretty clear it’s Kint. Gotta love HD. Mystery solved.

    • Yes, but the flashbacks are entirely subjective and unreliable. During the cop’s narration, Soze is Keaton, which is explicitly ruled out later on. So it’s possible we’re not seeing objective fact, but the story as the detective is constructing.

      I think it’s hard to argue that Soze wasn’t Kint, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

  9. Right, but what I think the OP is saying, is that we don’t know that Kint is Soze. He could be using Soze as a smokescreen. He could be the lackey, “Kobayashi” could be Soze. I mean-why would a criminal mastermind do the dirty work? He could get a lackey to be a criminal among them and lure them to the boat. IDK. I know the writer says Kint is Soze. I’m just saying that they, intentionally or unintentionally, leave it open to interpretation.

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