You're Old: 'The Usual Suspects' Came Out 20 Years Ago

You're Old: 'The Usual Suspects' Came Out 20 Years Ago

Aug 18, 2015

It's been two decades since cinema's most famous police lineup sent viewers down a twisty rabbit hole in pursuit of someone named "Keyser Soze," and movies have never been the same. Yes, The Usual Suspects was released 20 years ago this week, and if you remember seeing it in theaters in 1995, brace yourself for a surprise twist: You're Old®.

Though it was released near the end of the summer, the movie first saw the light of day the previous January at the Sundance Film Festival. Bryan Singer was a distinguished alumnus of the fest, his Public Access having shared the Grand Jury Prize two years earlier. Despite that honor, Public Access never got theatrical distribution, and the bare-bones DVD (released after Singer got famous) is now out of print. But it caught the attention of Kevin Spacey, who approached Singer after a screening and said he'd love to be in whatever Singer made next. The director took him up on that offer.
The Usual Suspects came to Sundance with a distribution deal already in place, preempting what would surely have been a bidding war once people saw it. It got a similarly enthusiastic reception at Cannes a few months later. By the time it hit theaters in August -- that is, by the time regular people could see it -- it already had several months' worth of buzz behind it.

At the time, the suspects weren't usual at all. Kevin Spacey, Benicio Del Toro, and Stephen Baldwin had been in a few movies each but were far from famous. Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Pollak were likewise experienced but not terribly well-known. The biggest star of the moment was probably Chazz Palminteri, who'd had the autobiographical A Bronx Tale (directed by Robert De Niro) in 1993 and an Oscar-nominated performance in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway in 1994.

And Bryan Singer? He was a 29-year-old USC film school graduate with one shared Sundance victory to his name and little else.

With no star power to speak of, Gramercy Pictures had to sell the film to audiences on the strength of its screwy crime plot and the mysterious Keyser Soze character, whose name was mentioned about a million times in the trailer. TV commercials asked "Who is Keyser Soze?" 

Curiously, the screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie (you might have seen his most recent work, Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation), has said that "Who is Keyser Soze?" is NOT the question he wants you to be asking. In fact, it was by avoiding that question that he succeeded at surprising so many viewers. In a recent Reddit chat, someone asked him: "What guidelines did you set up for yourself to make sure that the ending would come as a complete surprise to audiences?"

His answer: "I simply changed the question the audience was asking from 'Who is Keyser Soze' to 'Is Keaton [the Gabriel Byrne character] dead or alive.' I didn't fool you. You did."


Indeed, if you go into The Usual Suspects thinking your mission is to figure out who Keyser Soze is, there's a pretty good chance you'll do it. (There are only about six possible candidates, after all.) McQuarrie's idea was to misdirect you into focusing on a different question, to not even realize that Keyser Soze's identity was an issue.

Positive word-of-mouth and rave reviews kept the film afloat as it expanded into more theaters after its initial limited release. Roger Ebert famously hated it ("To the degree that I do understand, I don't care," he wrote after seeing it twice), but most critics were fans. Kevin Spacey's supporting performance and Christopher McQuarrie's screenplay won Oscars; both men went on to have illustrious careers. (Have you seen McQuarrie's The Way of the Gun? You should.) Singer has directed seven movies since then, including three X-Mens and a Superman, but nothing has approached the same level of pop-culture coolness as his breakout film. You can't make lightning strike twice. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was getting people to think otherwise.

When The Usual Suspects was released, on Aug. 18, 1995...


- It was a small release, only 42 theaters that first weekend. The big wide releases were Mortal Kombat and The Baby-Sitters Club. Dangerous Minds and A Walk in the Clouds had opened the week before; Waterworld, Babe, and The Net were recent releases too. The summer's biggest movies, Batman Forever and Apollo 13, were still in the multiplexes.

- In your car on the way to the theater, you probably heard some of these songs on the radio: "Waterfalls" (TLC), "Kiss from a Rose" (Seal), "Boombastic" (Shaggy), "Colors of the Wind" (Vanessa Williams), "I Can Love You Like That" (All-4-One), "Run-Around" (Blues Traveler), "Only Wanna Be with You" (Hootie & the Blowfish), and "Freek'n You" (Jodeci). In case you have forgotten "Freek'n You," here is the video. 

- The O.J. Simpson trial was in full swing, dominating the television airwaves. Of course, it was summer, so nothing was on anyway. The trial would wrap up about a month later, with a finale that left most viewers unsatisfied.

- The Walt Disney Company had recently announced its intent to buy ABC and ESPN, thus beginning a proud tradition of ABC sitcom characters going to Disneyland in special two-part episodes.

- MTV's Road Rules, Singled Out, and Aeon Flux were brand-new, while network stalwarts Matlock, Blossom, and Full House had recently ended their runs.

- In the music world, Ben Folds Five and The Presidents of the United States of America had just released their debut albums, and 311 had released their third (though it was called 311 and was the first one to attract any attention).

- In tech news, Microsoft was a week out from releasing Windows 95; a startup called eBay was about to be launched; and a new media format called "DVD" was set to be announced. As if anything could supplant the glory of VHS tapes!

- Jerry Garcia and Mickey Mantle had both died in the last 10 days. Popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher had less than a month to live. It was a sad time for fans of the munchies.   


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