Exploring Issues of State Control and Individual Resistance in the Contemporary Crime Thriller: Who is Keyser Soze?

Simon Sylvester, Lancaster University

'If there were not a Devil, we would have to invent him.' - Oscar Wilde [1]

'It was all the cops' fault.' - Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects

usual suspectsThe crime thriller is dependent on two things more than any other: hierarchy and boundaries. The most basic premise of any crime fiction or film is that certain boundaries have been transgressed; the plot is usually an evolution into the eventual brutal punishment or comic success of the misdemeanour. For this concept of transgression to apply, it is essential to construct a set of hierarchies within the world of the film: without which there cannot be any boundaries to be crossed. The crimes/ transgressions in such films are motivated by either the desire for or reaction to self-improvement and (anti) social climbing. Even in the cases where the criminal world is insular and isolated from recognised authorities, the society within this unlawful 'underworld' becomes self-regulating as a control against individual ambition. For this reason, Scarface (dir. de Palma, 1983) can equally justifiably culminate with the assassination of Tony Montana by rival gangsters, rather than the police who storm Tony Camonte's armoured apartment in the 1932 Howard Hawks original.

As the crime thriller has represented the criminal world as increasingly self-contained, so the police have become correspondingly ineffectual. In the recent resurgence of British gangster films such as Snatch (dir. Ritchie, 2000), they exist, if at all, as a mockery of themselves, in a demonstration that the State ceases to have any controlling impact on the populace of an insular criminal society. This idea of a weak and innocent police system seems quite commonplace, especially when explored in films that exist to reaffirm the power of the State forces, such as L.A. Confidential (dir. Hanson, 1997): as the central 'good-guy' protagonists must necessarily move outside the jurisdiction of official circles in order to see that justice is done and corruption eliminated. In other films that are set up as good/bad binary oppositions, such as the Die Hards, the Lethal Weapons, a large section of Arnold Schwarzenegger's back catalogue, and so on, it is almost inevitable that the 'good' representative of the State must shift significantly into the 'bad' criminal sphere in order to protect or restore the model of an acceptable society.

Building on this premise of a criminal underworld that is distinct from an organised and conscientious 'acceptable' society or 'over'-world, this essay will explore The Usual Suspects (dir. Singer, 1995) in an attempt to show the way in which the failure of the police to monitor excessively anti-social behaviour leads to the unconscious but inevitable construction of new repressive and ideological manifestations of supervisory control: Keyser Soze.

Louis Althusser denotes the police as part of the Repressive State Apparatus used by a controlling government/State as a force of coercion that exists as the repercussion to anti-social behaviour. For the titular Usual Suspects, however, the fear of State repression is non-existent. The police retain an ideological power over conscientious citizens, but not over criminals and their aberrant behaviour: the reaction of Dean Keaton's prospective investors shows that for the law-abiding citizen, the police are a source of consternation and an automatic indication of the presence of guilt. Agent Kujan quite clearly relishes the effect he has on Keaton's dinner guests, knowing that his presence alone has labelled Keaton as 'criminal'. However, the subsequent interviews and the line-up show that for the experienced social transgressor - the criminal, as 'non' citizen - the police have ceased to function as a Repressive force. This is demonstrated by the repeated ridiculing of the investigating officers:

OFFICER: We can place you in Queens on the night of the highjack.
HOCKNEY: Really? I live in Queens. Did you put that together yourself Einstein? Do you have a team of monkeys working round the clock?

In the mise-en-scene of the line-up, the five men are filmed through a television-like screen, a one-way darkened window against a backdrop of grill-like bars: Foucault's notions about the dissymmetry of worker/supervisor power relations suggest that this is a place of aggressive, dominating surveillance, in which the individual is under authoritative observation. [2] Despite the masked police presence that should theoretically inspire feelings of fear and guilt in the conscientious citizen, the five men are bored with the process, and deliver the ostensibly serious situation into farce. McManus reacts in an exaggerated manner, screaming out the required line, while Fenster's Latin drawl is deliberately indecipherable and must be repeated: 'In English, please!' Hockney and Keaton are bored and detached. Verbal Kint says the line very quietly and menacingly while the others smile and chuckle in the background: 'Hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker.'

The situation is a sham for these men, not least because one of them is actually guilty of the highjack: there is simply nothing that the police/State can do to control them. Keaton even dismisses the heavy punch he receives as unimportant when Edie insists on legal action. Verbal Kint has an epiphany:

What the cops never figured out, and what I know now, is that these men would never break, never lie down, never bend over for anybody. Anybody.

Indeed, their lack of respect and antagonism for the State is such that they devise the retaliatory attack on 'New York's Finest Taxi Service', because: 'I figure we owe it to ourselves to salvage a little dignity.' In this ambush scene, it is the authorities rather than the criminals who are quite literally boxed in, contained in a gaol of their own. The darkened one-way window that was used in the line-up as a way to mask surveillance is symbolically smashed as the car windscreen; leaving the police exposed to the ravages of an ideological device that they cannot utilise: the media, who 'were on the scene before the cops even knew about it.'

This scene is more than a demonstration that the five men refuse to capitulate to authority: it is a display of their ability to physically retaliate against the hegemonic and coercive controls of authority: 'Everybody got it right in the ass, from the chief on down. It was beautiful.' The State is impotent in the face of these anti-social elements: a truth actively recognised by Agent Kujan, who is unable to detain Verbal Kint legally and must instead bypass the State to threaten him indirectly with vigilante justice delivered by other criminals. This underworld self-regulation is demonstrated again in the murder of the drug dealer Sol Berg, as Kobayashi relays Keyser Soze's gratitude: 'a most unexpected bonus.'

It is quite evident in the film, then, that the police have become an impotent, rather than Repressive, State Apparatus: not least in their arrogantly assumed infallibility, demonstrated by Agent Kujan: 'Verbal, I'm smarter than you. I'm gonna find out what I want to know whether you like it or not.' This assumption is of course rendered ridiculous by the conclusion of the film. Throughout The Usual Suspects, the criminal underworld is shown to have little fear of repercussion in exposing the failure of the State to contain anti-social elements in a society that generates obedience from implicit, but ultimately un-manifested physical control.

It is this concept of manifestation - the actual demonstration of control - that generates Keyser Soze's involvement in the narrative. While the State Apparatuses are redundant, it seems that Soze has emerged as the replacement for a contemporary (criminal) society: an active monitor for the underworld, initiated by the failure of the officially regulated, 'overworld' authorities. He is an evolution of police repression: while the State is forced to engage with detection, guesswork and clumsy threats, Keyser Soze is omniscient, and capable of demonstrating his power of surveillance/ control. This new, tangible authority is repulsive to Keaton: having been handed the dossier of his life by Kobayashi, he gazes at the intimate photos of his relationship with Edie - his most private and personal sphere - and worriedly mutters: 'This isn't right. NoÉ there is no Keyser Soze.' Keaton prefers to live in a state of self-denial rather than admit to himself that he is subject to the omniscient, controlling will of an authoritative being.

This loathing of submission, displayed at first as extreme antagonism towards the psuedo-repressive authority of the police, is also initially extended to Keyser Soze, as the criminals mount their ambush on Kobayashi. As Keaton says to the lawyer: 'We know that you can get to us. But now you know that we can get to you too.' This concept of equality and retaliation, as seen previously in the attack on 'New York's Finest Taxi Service', is vital to the criminals, as their very identities are constituted by the notion of a perfectly insular autonomy. To be under the domination of any authority is a threat to the Self, and will not - cannot - be tolerated. At this point in the film, the criminals are down to four men, following the desertion and subsequent murder of Fenster. He is unable to accept Soze's authority and is therefore punished for refusing to subscribe to the new hierarchal power structures. It is this manifestation of retributive, castrating power that ultimately marks the difference between the State and Keyser Soze: the sinister crime lord is prepared to go to any lengths to exert his will; and the police, as we have already seen, are a spent force in the criminal underworld portrayed in The Usual Suspects.

To digress for a moment: Dean Keaton's last words to Verbal are a resigned message for Edie: 'tell herÉ tell her that I tried.' Keaton 'tries' to go straight, to assimilate into an innocent, law-abiding society: to 'hang up his spurs' and re-subscribe to the State as superego. But he cannot emerge from the criminal underworld as a conscientious citizen, because he has experienced first-hand and actively contributed to the dissolution of Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses: and therefore cannot deny their obsolescence. Without a State/superego, Keaton intrinsically cannot function as a 'good' citizen of the State/society, as there is nothing to produce the self-control of a frightened ego. [3] Now, linking in with this lack of a superego, the Federal Special Agent Jack Baer comments that:

[Keyser Soze] could be a badge. You know, a hex sign, keep people from fucking with you back when a name used to mean something. [my italics]

The above lines are a wonderfully colloquial paraphrase of Louis Althusser:

Priests or Despots [É] forged the Beautiful Lies so that, in the belief that they were obeying God, men would in fact obey the Priests and Despots. [4]

The name/badge 'Keyser Soze' is one of Althusser's 'Beautiful Lies': the significant change in the suspects' mood as the label/image Soze is introduced is proof enough of his reputation, if not his reality: he is hyperreal. The name 'Soze' instils the same fear and respect in the criminal, that the presence of Agent Kujan as a policeman inspires in Keaton's conscientious restaurant investors: as a label that is more significant as a label than the object it ostensibly signifies: Keyser Soze is much more than an individual. He is the criminal superego personified, a new, simultaneously coercive and hegemonic, repressive and ideological control to replace the weak and ineffectual State power system. He, it, Soze, is a construct: the repressed fear and certainty that anti-social behaviour must inevitably be punished; self-regulated by the individual and his own (criminal) society, if not by official authorities. Soze is the concept of a brutal immediate justice, the explosive retribution against contravention and transgression of social codes and hierarchies. As the superego of an insular criminal underworld, he is the 'boogieman' that Verbal Kint laughingly dismisses to Agent Kujan:

Everybody thought that [Keyser Soze] was a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. 'Rat on your pop, and Keyser Soze will get you.'

Soze is a hegemonic ideology to replace the failed controls of the police, and as such finds a place inside every one of the characters, fabricated or otherwise, that populate The Usual Suspects. Verbal asks rhetorically, 'how do you shoot the devil in the back?' with the certain knowledge that is impossible to do so without shooting yourself. Even the initially sceptical voice of regulated authority, personified in Kujan, eventually comprehends the magnitude of Soze's insidious control: 'The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.'

Any reader of this essay who is still in search of a single identity to pin on Keyser Soze, why, that would hardly be in the spirit of the film, would it? Well, if you mustÉ who is Keyser Soze? The film is deliberately riddled with ambiguity and aporia, but overall Verbal is ostensibly identified as Soze. However, I do not find this conclusion entirely convincing: taking as objective the moments that are certainly and specifically those of the omniscient director Bryan Singer over the subjectivity of an extremely unreliable narrator, Verbal is quite distinctly filmed separate from the deaths of Hockney, Keaton and McManus. [5] There is also evidence to suggest that Soze is indeed Kujan's man, Dean Keaton, although director Bryan Singer has repeatedly denied this connection. Indeed, perhaps Soze doesn't appear in the film at all and is unknown by all the characters. Personally, I am convinced 'he' is the sinister lawyer, Kobayashi: masked by the intangibility of the global corporation; his dubiously 'Limey' accent would tie in with a Turkish background; and he arrives to collect his triumphant agent from the police station, linking to Verbal's earlier statement that:

You think you can catch Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to being caught, and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything it'll be to get rid of me. After that, my guess is you'll never hear from him again.

usual suspectsVerbal refuses absolutely to begin his story without the coffee mug that is stamped with Kobayashi's name, initiating and quietly omnipresent throughout the entire conversation, before exploding as a symbol of the final revelations; and not least as an indicator that the identity of Keyser Soze has been quite literally in Agent Kujan's hands for the entire duration of the narrative. The rough identikit sketch that emerges from the fax machine is as striking a resemblance to Pete Postlethwaite as Kevin Spacey, and there is certainly a definite relish in his sinister promise that 'I might only castrate Mr. McManus' nephew David.' Even more chillingly, Kobayashi is the only person who had both access to and the motive to murder Edie Finneran, a fact that he himself emphasises to Keaton: 'The bodyguard accompanies her at all times, Mr. Keaton. He never leaves her side, not even for a moment.'

But the 'true' identity really does not matter, because Soze is everywhere. He is the criminal superego in an underworld that has no other controlling influences and no real semblance of authority. Soze's power is simultaneously subtle and insidious; and tangible and certain. Unlike the police, he is capable of emerging from the hyperreal to mete out immediate physical retribution for any hierarchical transgressions. Keyser Soze exists to replace an impotent, redundant State/superego.

And so, finally: elementary, my dear Agent Kujan. Keyser Soze is all of them.

Copyright © 2003 Simon Sylvester


Althusser, Louis: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses; in Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan (Eds.): Literary Theory: an Anthology; Great Britain, Blackwell, 1998.

Berardinelli, James: Review: The Usual Suspects; 1995. Accessed 18th February 2003 from: http://movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/u/usual.html

Foucault, Michel: Discipline and Punish; in Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan (Eds.): Literary Theory: an Anthology; Great Britain, Blackwell, 1998.

Singer, Brian (dir.): The Usual Suspects; 1997 (VHS Video).

Wilde, Oscar: quoted in 'Philosophy found in 'quotes' ', accessed 19th February 2003 from: http://homepage.mac.com/mitchsnider/Education3.html

[1] Oscar Wilde: http://homepage.mac.com/mitchsnider/Education3.html

[2] Michel Foucault in Rivkin & Ryan (Eds.): pp 469-473.

[3] Evidently this is a generalisation of the role of the superego in the psychological makeup of an individual; but I think it remains valid in the context of the film.

[4] Louis Althusser in Rivkin & Ryan (Eds.), p.295.

[5] I'm referring specifically to the pier scene at the culmination of the film, although throughout The Usual Suspects, there are occasional moments without Verbal (extremely few and far between) which I believe are perhaps also therefore necessarily outside his story; and consequently marginally more objective and certain. With this premise in mind, Verbal is positioned distinctly distant from the deaths of the remaining criminals at the hands of Keyser Soze. This notion of narrative accountability in the film is an interesting topic in itself, but constitutes too great a divergence to justify an extensive digression from my prime issue.