The Antagonists of THE USUAL SUSPECTS: An Analysis
Creating an antagonist is an essential make-up of a great script, walking the fine line of developing truly unique antagonists while still being likable by the audience. No one wants an antagonist who is evil solely for the sake of being evil. Even Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) has a sympathetic backstory of drowning in Crystal Lake.
Some films even have an entourage of antagonists and villainous characters who aren’t the typical characters an audience would root for. The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie, is a prime example of a film filled with, without overcomplicating it, bad guys.
Still from 'The Usual Suspects'. Photo credit: Festival de Cannes
Everyone’s Bad in Some Way
The Usual Suspects follows an interrogation of Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a small-time con man, who is one of only two survivors of a massacre on a ship in Los Angeles. Through flashback and narration, Kint tells the events that led him and his criminal companions to the boat and their demise.
Although one can argue that the film’s standard good guy characters are the police, the main bulk of the story focuses on a group of criminals. These criminals aren’t just people who are robbing rich people to give to the poor; they’ve murdered, robbed, and done everything they could just to benefit themselves financially.
It’s not very prevalent for a film to focus on a group of characters like that. Still, the charm of it allows the audience to root for these characters amidst their quest. Even with the story opening with how it ends, it still makes us wonder how they got to that point in the story and everything in between.
Who is the Real Antagonist?
The biggest issue a film like The Usual Suspects has is in determining who the real antagonist is from the audience’s perspective. After all, usually when the audience thinks of the antagonist, it’s a bully in a coming-of-age flick or the Joker in Batman. A character that has clear motives that goes against the goals of the protagonist.
Still, the typical archetype of an antagonist doesn’t always have to be the case. The antagonist can solely be the characters who are in the way of what the protagonists are trying to accomplish. With that being said, the criminal group’s antagonists would be the police and the mysterious Keyser Söze, who wants them all dead.
Even with the notion of an identifiable antagonist with Keyser Söze, it still becomes a matter of wondering who the real antagonist is. After all, we see Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin) kill a man when they try robbing him. Usually we don’t associate murder with someone we’re rooting for. Yet, we still root for the criminal group to get out unscathed.
How Do You Create a Story Filled With Villains?
The Usual Suspects is a story filled with villains and characters who have done wrong. Many novice screenwriters and filmmakers may wonder how it’s possible to create a story filled with what you’d generally associate as the antagonists. It’s done by telling a story of criminals who have a minor antagonist roadblock with the police and a greater enemy in Keyser Söze.
The constant check of conflict creates a story that’s entertaining to anyone, not just someone who has an appreciation for the neo-noir genre. Conflict is what drives the success of a great script, film, and story in general. A story filled with characters who have more enemies than allies is undoubtedly a way to effectively do that.
Kobayashi and the Secondary Antagonist
Once the film introduces us to Kobayashi as a lawyer representing Keyser Söze, it takes time for the audience to think of Kobayashi as the antagonist to the criminal group. It’s a matter of death, and if the group doesn’t follow the instructions from Kobayashi regarding the ship, they’ll be killed.
Even the group at one point thinks Keyser Söze is a made-up character and Kobayashi is the true antagonist behind it all. This, of course, comes to a quick end when they try killing Kobayashi, and it’s revealed that Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis), Dean Keaton’s love interest, would be killed if they don’t do as their told.
Keyser Söze and the Big Reveal
Although we’ve already discussed some minor spoilers, stop reading now if you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects yet. We’re about to discuss the big reveal, so warning that there are SPOILERS AHEAD. Keyser Söze’s reveal was a turning point in the story once it comes out that the main protagonist in Roger "Verbal" Kint is actually Keyser Söze.
It turns into a cluster of a twist ending that shows there wasn’t an actual antagonistic conflict for Söze after he used the group around him to kill the one person who could identify him. Endings like these are what drives audiences to the theatre. The main character being the main antagonist he was so frightened about, how brilliant.