As we continue our exploration of the multiple meanings of Rashomon, the Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club will next take a look at a movie which is often mentioned as an example of a “Rashomon like” modern film. Our film for the month of September is Bryan Singer‘s 1995 noir thriller The Usual Suspects.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: despite Kurosawa’s film often being mentioned in connection with Singer’s, for the most part The Usual Suspects is actually not very much like Rashomon at all. Singer himself has referred to Kurosawa’s film when describing The Usual Suspects as “a bit like Rashomon” on a DVD extra and as “Double Indemnity meets Rashomon” around the time of its release, but no claim for a deeper connection between the two films seems intended, either by Singer’s comments or by his film. Although the two films both feature lying narrators, in Rashomon‘s case the truth becomes muddied mainly because of human nature, whereas in The Usual Suspects it is more a case of intellectual trickery. And instead of multiple points of view, we only get one. The two films appear to have very different intentions.
Yet, there are clear similarities as well, and definitely much to discuss. For instance, in both films the authenticity of what we see is questionable not only because of an unreliable narrator that exists within the story, but also because of the film format itself. We as the audience have to deal with a camera that does not represent actual objective truth. Yet, is there a difference in how Singer and Kurosawa approach this idea?
Both films are also built on a film aesthetic from the past. In Rashomon‘s case this is silent cinema, whereas The Usual Suspects draws from film noir. In both cases, the link is somewhat contradictory: Rashomon is after all a sound film while The Usual Suspects is filmed in colour, as opposed to black-and-white more typical of noir. In what ways do they (or don’t they) make this contradiction work?
And thirdly, the very fact that The Usual Suspects is so often one of the first modern films to be mentioned in connection with Rashomon is probably an indication of how most people approach Rashomon. What does it say about Kurosawa’s film?
It is also worth looking at The Usual Suspects on its own merits, with its stellar cast and largely positive but still to an extent divisive reviews: it has 88% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, yet some major critics like Roger Ebert were not impressed while The Washington Post’s Desson Howe called it “nothing more than an over-designed lobster pot”. The film is also very much a product of its times, and more or less belongs to the same group of films as later releases like M. Night Shyamalan The Sixth Sense (1999), David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). What was it about the late 1990s that had Western filmmakers explore the idea of deception, and in doing so gave birth to so many twist endings?
For us, The Usual Suspects is also part of a wider context within which we have set out to explore Rashomon, its meanings and some of its permutations. In addition to Rashomon which we watched last month and The Usual Suspects now, we will be watching George Cukor’s Les Girls in October, the animated film Hoodwinked! in November, the martial arts film Hero in December, and finally Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog in January. For last month’s introduction to Rashomon see here, for more information about our film club see here, and for a list of previous Rashomon discussions see here.
The Usual Suspects is widely available on streaming services, as well as on Blu-ray and DVD. What’s your take on the film?