The hell with ”Who is Keyser Soze?” What I want to know is, who is Bryan Singer? The 28-year-old director took movie audiences by storm last year with The Usual Suspects, a sneaky neo-noir about five hoods who find themselves controlled by a shadowy mastermind. Suspects is so complexly clever that it split audiences down the middle: Some viewers reveled in its endless plot kinks, while others simply found the whole thing incomprehensible.
Inevitably, Singer is being compared to Quentin Tarantino, but the differences are more illuminating. The treat of Pulp Fiction is its rocketing dialogue; the pleasure of The Usual Suspects is its storytelling. In other words, if Tarantino is a stylist, Singer is a craftsman. Not coincidentally, he doesn’t ham up his own movies. So who is this guy?
A background check reveals that Singer grew up in suburban New Jersey (not nowhere, but not too far away, either). He diddled with Super-8 movies in high school and studied film criticism at the University of Southern California, and there’s the crucial difference between Singer and Tarantino: While young Tarantino was inhaling everything from schlock to art during his now-legendary video-store gig, Singer imbibed the classic curriculum of Hollywood and foreign films. He boned up on the Good Stuff, and you can sense that fundamental seriousness of purpose (what Owen in the office two doors down from mine calls pretentiousness) throughout Suspects.
There’s an especially European whiff to Singer’s little-seen first feature, Public Access, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival and is now getting a video release on the heels of Suspects’ success. A glacial, audacious moral horror story, Access tells of a stranger named Whiley Pritcher (Ron Marquette, looking like Jeff Goldblum’s creepy younger brother) who arrives in the small town of Brewster and sets up a rumormongering call-in show on the local cable channel. The movie is the work of a talented kid riffing on his influences. The plot nods toward the 1943 French drama The Raven; specific shots evoke Hitchcock, Godard, Leone; the whole film has a languid, Blue Velvety feel. Yet Singer (who cowrote with Christopher McQuarrie and Michael Feit Dougan) stakes out a nasty territory of his own. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to mine it, and Access doesn’t end so much as evaporate.
The Usual Suspects is more confident, and, despite its detractors, more coherent. The complicated plot makes sense if you’re willing to pay attention, and if you’re not, well, that’s why God invented the rewind button. Working from another McQuarrie script, Singer sets up a gallery of recognizable yet fresh characters, five men who concoct a robbery while in jail for a line-up: a world-weary corrupt cop (Gabriel Byrne), a blustering gunman (Stephen Baldwin), a cynical explosives expert (Kevin Pollak), a marble-mouth goodfella (the hilarious Benicio Del Toro), and — odd man out — a crippled con artist (Kevin Spacey). The job doesn’t just go awry — it spins out into a tangle of baffled criminality. Heists pile upon heists, paranoia upon paranoia, as the guiding hand of Soze, a Hungarian arch-criminal who may not even exist, tightens its grip.
The old-movie homages are integrated this time. If Soze is a descendant of director Fritz Lang’s Ubervillain Dr. Mabuse, he’s at least an honorable bastard. More important, Suspects shows Singer refining Public Access‘s atmosphere of prankish dread by hooking it to a story with real style and drive. And for all its crossplots and flashbacks, The Usual Suspects plays fair: When Keyser Soze is finally revealed, you can almost hear the satisfactory clunk of the last puzzle piece locking into place. (That this action makes the whole story vanish in a puff of smoke is merely one final, nifty, Borgesian gag.)
You may also find yourself thinking ”So what?” The Usual Suspects builds a beautiful little movie world that ultimately doesn’t matter. Imagine Pulp Fiction without Samuel L. Jackson’s final transfiguration, the one scene that made the movie about something. Oh, never mind that. Imagine, instead, what Bryan Singer will do next.
The Usual Suspects: B+
Public Access: C+