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The Ending Of The Usual Suspects Explained

A gritty, hard-hitting piece of noir crime cinema, "The Usual Suspects" tells the story of a group of criminals brought together to execute a job that, in turn, gets almost all of them executed. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a con man with cerebral palsy, is one of only two survivors of a massacre and fire aboard a ship docked in the port of Los Angeles. Through a combination of narration and flashbacks, we learn the story of how Kint and his fellow criminals got into that mess and how only Verbal managed to get out of it alive and unscathed.

Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) doesn't buy Verbal's story, belittling him every chance he gets. Verbal instead tells the tale of how the group came together and how their paths crossed with a man named Keyser Soze, a shadowy figure in the criminal underworld who is as much myth as man.

The devil in the details

Verbal relates the story of how he and Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) were part of a police lineup with three other men: entry man Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), his partner in crime Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and demolitions expert Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak). By the film's ending, each of these men apart from Verbal die.

Kujan believes fervently that Keaton (a disgraced ex-cop) has to be Soze — if there is such a person as this shadowy underworld boogeyman. Despite pressure from Kujan, Verbal refuses to testify in court, posts bail, then leaves the L.A. precinct. Shortly afterward, Kujan looks at the bulletin board in the office he borrowed for the interrogation and realizes every single thing Verbal told him was a lie. Names from the story appear on the board on wanted posters, as do locations. Kujan, who had belittled Verbal and mocked his intelligence at every opportunity, has been played.

We then see Verbal (who, up to this point, had been walking with a pronounced limp), straighten his leg and begin walking normally, lighting a cigarette as he's picked up by Kobayashi. It's then that we realize that Verbal has been Keyser Soze the entire time, telling the story as an unreliable narrator to buy time until he could walk out the front door and vanish.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled

"The Usual Suspects" is one of the best noir tales in recent memory, but it's also a meditation on the alluring power of a story well told. Like Scheherazade from "1001 Arabian Nights," Verbal Kint tells the tale not merely to engross his audience (and thus buy time until he can escape), but also to misdirect, to lull Kujan into a false sense of superiority and security. 

Like the nameless narrator of Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones" or George MacDonald Fraser's "Harry Flashman," Kint is the unreliable narrator, often providing contradictory statements but immediately glossing them over with explanations that are just this side of palatable while continuing the tale and keeping Kujan distracted. Yet when the revelation hits, the rug is pulled out not just from under Agent Kujan, but the audience as well. From that moment we can trust nothing in Verbal's statement because we know that Verbal Kint never existed. He was Keyser Soze the entire time, lying to our faces, even as we securely had the knowledge that the ending of the movie was already a foregone conclusion.

The ending of "The Usual Suspects" is a beautiful play on the power of a story to deceive. Verbal's story lures in both Kujan and the audience, drawing us in and having us come to believe it before revealing the whole thing as pure artifice. It's easily one of the most note-perfect endings in cinema history.