(Visual) Anthropology goes to the movies | Take II : The Keyser Söze Effect

the-usual-suspects-5261e6a94d1ceThe Keyser Söze Effect relies all on this paradox: the delight of being deceived, the magic of a manipulation. The pleasure found right there, in that revelation: the rules of the game have all along been yours truly, yours only, you’ve played, you’ve lost. Hit the repeat button. Play it again Sam. And you probably have. I know I have. My collector VHS even breaking down on me: dooming to addiction those very last minutes of the epic finale of Bryan Singer’ 1995 ”The Usual Suspects”. The how to leave it all to your viewer. The want-more, because you gave me less (or so it seems). The want-a-Keyser-Söze-effect-for-ethnographic-movies.


If you have seen the movie* you know that The Usual Suspects plays all along on uncertainties: it’s a puzzle, a vision you go through in blur mode, a complexity swallowing you. And yet – or rather: because of that exactly – the viewer leaves the theatre with the desire to know more, come back to the movie, watch it all over again. I must have missed something… It was there, right in front of me, I am sure. I just need another chance, I swear, I’ll do better next time, I’ll get it. And yet, what in the world does a (back then) small-aspirations, grand-inspiration, barely-no-budget-thriller, has to do with any ethnography?

The whole beauty of the Keyser Söze Effect is its very location at the core – the end actually – of a movie entitled The Usual Suspects. Let’s pause on that for a second. For if anthropology has one mission in life it may just that: to bring on the unsuspected possibilities of the unusual, to turn the usual into something rather suspect, to be generously suspicious of all things at all times. Anthropology, in other words, strives for a deconstruction of that infamous ‘Other’ as an ‘usual suspect’, the familiar stranger of Zygmunt Bauman for example. And that’s what the whole Keyser Söze Effect is about. The whole movie prepares the viewer into wondering, well, pretty much just who (the hell) is Keyser Söze? It builds up tension as protagonists – along with the viewer – try to piece it all together: eventualities open and close, certainties fade away, more questions come up as each answer seems to have been completed, and then finally: just when you thought you had it – as the movie gives up who is Keyser Söze and you realize – smarty pants – you had it all figured out too – it tells you otherwise. When you think you finally got it all right, this twisted cinematic strip makes you realize that no, you really just got it all wrong, we all did, probably Keyser Söze included. The movie take-away message is therefore that the usual suspect is anything but. Can we aim for any more adequate concluding opening line for visual anthropology?

Let’s take a closer (anthro) look not so much at the movie as with it. Just like a classical ethnography the film’s aim seems to be a description of the unseen, of the invisible: here Keyser Söze. But it is also about the fact that everything is already there, visible, under our very eyes, obvious. The ethnographer needs to look not so much at the people she works with, as with them, in order to describe what life is, here and now. The viewer reflects on The Usual Suspects with the mind of an anthropologist running wild, caught in a moment of ‘bad’ ethnography: if she didn’t get that obviously Keyser Söze was THAT Keyser Söze, it must be because she wasn’t attentive enough, didn’t care much, she just ‘didn’t look too good’. Yet there is something to be learned from another viewing, the second, the third, and well, by now, a shameless un(ac)contable number of viewings on my side: from the whole plot enbrained by the director Bryan Singer; the very manipulation of Keyser Söze, of his own image within the movie; and lastly but certainly not least (spoiler) the entire make up, the invention – if not a total improvisation – of all of Keyser Söze by Verbal Kint, the man with a plan. What the re-re-re-viewer sees then, in this always anew screening, is not so much that Keyser Söze had always been there, that she should have seen it coming, but rather that he was there free to detect, observe, work with, spend time with. And yet: why the hell didn’t we all sit in that interrogation room when Verbal Kint does, pausing, still, inviting us in, while all we cared for is the yet-to-come interrogation…


The clues – fabulous found jewels spread all along the film strip – are nothing but reminders that Keyser Söze has been a construction all along: by Verbal Kint & Keyser Söze himself of course, but also by the Turks, the Bulgarians, the gangs, the team, the cops, Keaton, agent Kujan, detective Baer, and of course the magnificent, the splendid, the almighty in all modesty: KO-BA-YA-SHI. It has been all constructed for you viewer, reader. It is up to you to realize that, at any point of the movie. It should be up to you to realize that at any point of any ethnography.

The Usual Suspects even has, in its fiber, quite some methods familiar to the anthropologist’ tool kit: right there when we see him first in the interrogation room, our ‘informant’ – himself an original myth and a myth of origins all together – piecing it all together. We are led to observe, and yet we don’t: we look at him, not with him. If we were, we would have seen right there, the meshwork of archives on the wall, the cigarette case… the cup… The Cup! THAT CUP! Seriously, how can we even sleep well after having missed The.Cup.! All those elements, fragmented, scattered, broken, shattered, all over again and again. The observation of it all: of the scene, of the movie, of life, of anthropology: fragmented, scattered, broken, shattered, all over again and again: as it should be.


And finally, all through the movie: the evidence that while pretending to be on the side, marginal, a mere line in the whole story, Verbal Kint has in fact just been totally, absolutely, completely central to it. The essence of it all. Of the whole reality and the entire surrealism of Keyser Söze. A proof to be filed with our dossier: a mere sentence from a scene. Take good note of the grins, the attentive yet dismissive looks of Verbal Kint, as Agent Kujan asks – just as any viewer of ethnographic movies, any reader of monograph – this:



”Convince me.

Tell me every last detail”.



It is the burning desire to ‘be convinced’ that draws Agent Kujan in the illusion. It is this convinction that leaves him there, unable to actually ‘get’ Keyser Söze.

The sequence is followed by a dialogue between Agent Kujan and his doubtful colleague Jeff Rabin, upon the release of the news that Keyser Söze is gone, upon the release of Verbal Kint who is Keyser Söze but who somehow can not be Keyser Söze, it can’t be true, that ain’t for real. The usual suspect is just that, an usual suspect, the observation has been achieved, the description is done, case closed. And yet:

– ”We still got nothing”

– ”I know what I wanted to know about Keaton”

– ”Which is nothing”

– ”No matter. He’ll have to know how close we came”.

I want to bet that any ethnographer in the making would feel very close to Agent Kujan: an embrace of finding everything in the nothing, a settlement for the ‘getting close’ rather than the lie of the exhaustive. On the other side of the room Sergeant Jeff Rabin here reminds us of what anthropology has long been, and what it still often resonates of outside of the walled discussions of our discipline:



”It has a system.

It all makes sense if you look at it right.

You gotta stand back from it”.


And finally the epic conclusion, that moment of pure cinema, probably one of the best from the 90’s if you ask me: the explanation, a revelation. It’s polyphonic, it’s a mess, it surrounds Kujan as much as the viewer, it twists your mind, it twirls your brain around and you just want to catch your breath, but hell no, you’ll have to wait for that. It is in this disorder that Keyser Söze is revealed, to the very opposite idea of some structuralist anthropology – for one – which guided us into making sense of the disorder, in ordering it. That doesn’t work here. It’s the disorder – all those voices, all those pieces, all that – which all put together with no sense whatsoever are making sense. Every solo version of who may Keyser Söze be, during the movie, put aside: it had no value on its own. It is in the discordant meshwork of information, in the cacophonic reviewing of all those simultaneous individuals and individual moments, saying something different, saying nothing much, and not saying anything at all, that we finally get to comprehend who is Keyser Söze. But then – take that you viewer, you anthropologist – it is through a black screen, one where nothing is to be seen that we actually do see Keyser Söze as he is, it is in the dark that we realize this, just when we get him… He’s gone.

The Keyser Söze Effect.

Back from the notebook, winter 2014.


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* Otherwise you may want to do so right now. Trying my best to stay away from spoilers here, the whole pillar of the movie relying on a singular tension not to be spoiled, but who knows how long I can resist the temptation…


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