I must be on my own here or The Usual Suspects wouldn’t be so popular. But there is an issue in that film that came up to an extent in a play I just saw and unfortunately is also pressing on my mind over a project of my own.
There are spoilers here for The Usual Suspects but I won’t tell you the name of the play. That hurts me more than it hurts you: I enjoyed the play very much and I only saw it on its opening night, there’s a fair chance you could still see it – and I am certain it will tour and tour and tour. Nonetheless, I ain’t telling.
Let me get the Suspects spoiler out of the way: if you’ve not seen it and you want to, look away now.
The twist in the film is that Kevin Spacey’s character has made up the whole story.
Fine. As twists go, it is enormous because it transforms the entire film and reveals the baddie to be the one person who didn’t or at least were not supposed to suspect. And it’s a lie: I like being lied to in drama, I love being misdirected. That’s true in the production as much as it is in the story: I even wrote a Self Distract once called Lie to Me.
I was really enjoying The Usual Suspects up to that revelation. It was written by Christopher McQuarrie, directed by Bryan Singer. The cast was impressive. (Well, you keep hearing stories that the actors didn’t know who the baddie was in the story and it’s a little hard to remain impressed if none of them could be bothered to read to the end of the script.)
Still, there I am watching this film in the late 1990s and I was quickly into it, into the story, engrossed by these characters. But that’s the problem, I was engrossed by the characters. And then told they didn’t exist.
It’s a funny thing: characters in a drama never exist, it’s just a story, yet being told that they don’t, told that within the drama itself, that makes a difference.
All these characters I’d followed and invested in and believed, they didn’t exist and they never did. All a lie. I was meant to be jolted and I was, I was meant to be blown away by the twist and I wasn’t. It’s done cleverly, I should write something that smart, but instead I solely found myself thinking oh. Okay. That’s clever. What time is it?
The twist gave us a surprise but it took away every single thing, every possible element that I had been interested in, that I cared about, that had got me into the story. I don’t think that’s a fair trade. I would’ve come away enthused but instead I left that cinema annoyed and clearly I wasn’t alone because it only won two Oscars and another thirty major film awards.
The Play I Saw Recently included two characters that we join as they are first meeting, first getting to know and to like each other. It’s a funny, touching, growing relationship necessarily conducted in little slices as these two happen to be in the same place. You quickly suspect they are both going out of their way to get back there when the other is likely to be around, but it’s sweet and believable. You want them to get together and that is quite a hard thing to pull off in drama. It’s done well and seems to be the sole light in a bleak story. Except toward the end you learn that their meeting was not an accident and that one of them has been explicitly working to get revenge on the other.
That revelation fits the play perfectly and I am vastly more satisfied with this PISR than I was with Suspects.
However, because we aren’t supposed to guess that this is happening, we only learn very late on that there might be a reason for anyone to want revenge on this person. It’s a big thing that’s happened. I envy how the writer has crafted something that we can be jolt-appalled by yet also feel for the person who did this big thing, how we can understand how it could happen.
But we get that for a moment and then we learn the reveal. The enormous thing is uncovered and dispensed with in a thrice and that reduces it. It doesn’t make it trivial, but it makes it smaller because we don’t get long for us to see how it affects that character. Something enormous is revealed late and the plot moves on instantly so the enormous because dispensed with. It therefore becomes smaller. So the revenge that comes immediately after that feels out of scale. The fact that we haven’t suspected anything – that may well be my fault, the script may well be riddled with hints and as I say it all fits in with the gorgeously bleak story – also changes things. We didn’t suspect this person had done this thing, we didn’t suspect that the other would be there for revenge.
So we’ve spent this time getting to know these two characters and really we didn’t get to know them.
I think it works better than The Usual Suspects, though, because I think we can feel that what we’ve seen is the real character beneath the plot. What we’ve learnt of how these two feel and think is real even though what we’ve learnt of how they act is not.
I’m not sure. Maybe this comes down to how I love stories and I don’t like puzzles. The Usual Suspects is a fundamentally different film if you watch it a second time. This PISR is a drastically different play if you go see it again. Jagged Edge is a taut thriller unless you know whether the guy did it or not, in which case it’s a bit empty.
All of which would be fine, I could do the critic dance and say McQuarrie and the writer of PISR aren’t as good as I am, QED, except that I am tussling with this issue in a project of my own and, oh my lights, it’s hard.
I have a tale that doesn’t exactly depend on you thinking a key character is something when she’s really something else, but it helps.
She’s lying her teeth off and of course I want the moment you realise this to be enormous. But I’m trying to make it so that everything you’ve learnt about her is still true, she is still this same woman going through these same issues – those issues are just gigantically bigger than you expected and they are profoundly more her fault than you thought. I want you to be truly shocked but then immediately feel for her.
I know that moment, I can see that exact instant when you are to realise and I know to the pixel where it will come in the story. Unfortunately, it has to be instantly followed by another shock that I fear is about as big. The revelation causes the second shock, I can’t see a way to even separate them by a minute. So whatever part of my brain it is that just does plots for me while I sweat about characters, that’s tapping me on the arm and asking me to ponder this. To ponder a lot – such a lot – whether an immediate second shock diminishes the first one. You want to get the most value out of something, especially when you’ve worked hard to get us to that point, so it’s an issue of whether I am throwing away some of the punch. Whether I am making this enormous thing feel smaller and out of scale.
I might be turning this into a puzzle.
But I am clear on this one thing. Even when you learn the truth about this character, she will still be the same character you’ve come to know. She’ll just have this whole other issue and I hope to make it that this hurts.
I’ve said this before but I think drama is like running your hand over a piece of wood. Go one way, stroke against the grain and your skin gets cut by shards, it stings and you bleed. That’s what a story should do as you go through it. But the way when you then stroke back, stroke in the same direction as the grain, it’s all smooth. Stories have to work in retrospect; take us somewhere new and most certainly, definitely, unquestionably, undoubtedly take the characters somewhere they don’t want to go but they have to be the same characters.