Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Usual Suspects -- seeing Satan, fearing God

Director: Bryan Singer, 1994.

With only his third film, Bryan Singer hit a career high. Although he directed other action-packed films, including the first two X-Men movies, and the WW2 drama, Valkyrie, this mystery stands as a pinnacle in his resume and in the genre itself.

The Usual Suspects is built around the throw-away line from Casablanca. The five principal characters, with nothing in common, find themselves in a police line-up after a truck hijacking in New York. Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning role, is Verbal Kint, a wimpy conman with gimpy limbs. Gabriel Byrne is the corrupt ex-cop turned straight business man. McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollack) and Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) round out this motley crew of usual suspects.

Though the police have nothing on them for this crime, their coincidental meeting proves fortuitous as they plan a revenge job together, getting one back on the police. This heist leads to blackmail and betrayal.

All this is back-story to the real quest and questions of the plot. The movie opens with a scene of carnage at the LA docks. A mystery man shoots Byrne and leaves 27 others dead before blowing up the ship. Only two men survive: Kint and a badly burned and deathly scared Hungarian. So, who is this mystery man killer? What did we see happening in this event?

Singer weaves together multiple threads to create an absorbing and intriguing puzzle. Viewers have to watch carefully since the facts and the truth are before us throughout. As in Memento, we cling to the main character's narrative thread, as Verbal verbally spars with an FBI agent and a police detective in an LA police station. But the director's sleight of hand is enough to keep us guessing until the very end.

It becomes clear that the mystery man is Keyser Soze, an enigmatic arch-criminal and brutal murderer. But this does little to reveal his identity. He is almost mythical in underworld circles. He is the criminal's bogeyman. People interact with him through his assistant, Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). As Verbal makes clear,
Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was
German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that
ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have
worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the
Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof.
He's gone.
Verbal illustrates a biblical warning. The Devil is not a myth. Like Keyser Soze, he has succeeded in making many today think that Satan is a fantasy. He is a figment of the imaginations of the non-scientific peoples of the past. Yet this is exactly what Satan wants us to think. When we disregard him, we forget him and he can attack us easily in our unpreparedness. Jesus knew the reality of Satan. One of the first of God's creation, a fallen angel, Satan tempted Jesus with real and physical temptations during the 40-day wilderness experience that marked the start of his ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). Paul warns us to stand firm against the devil and his plots and attacks (Eph. 6:10-14). Peter also tells us that Satan is waiting for us, ready to devour us like a lion eating its prey (1 Pet. 5:8-9).

How do we stand against the devil? First, we must recognize and acknowledge his existence. Second, we must put on the full armor of God, as described by Paul in Ephesians 6:11-18. Finally, we must stand firm, holding fast to the ground we have, trusting in the Word of God and prayer.

When asked by the cops if he believes in Keyser Soze, Verbal says, "Keaton always said, 'I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him.' Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze."

A real response to Satan (or Keyser Soze) is to fear him, as he is powerful and stronger than any human. Yet, beyond this, we must believe in God, who is infinitely mightier than anything in his creation, including Satan. This belief in God must include a healthy fear of God. The Psalmist commands us to "fear the Lord" (Psa. 34:9). This is not the same fear we must have of Satan. It is an awesome respect and rightful worship of Him who deserves all worship. When we truly fear God, our fear of Satan will be tempered with the knowledge that God has already defeated him, and "the one [Jesus] who is in you is greater than the one [Satan] who is in the world" (1 Jn 4:4). We must fear someone. Who will it be?

When all is said and done, to understand The Usual Suspects you have to stand back from the details and see the big picture. The details can be terribly intriguing but they can also mask the truth. The Christian life is like this, too. As we reflect on the reality of Satan and God, the fear of Satan and God, and our present circumstances (which may or may not make much sense to us), we need to stand back and see the big picture portrayed in the Bible. God is at work in this time slowly building his kingdom. Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is near," (Mk. 1:15) and his ministry was one of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. We must not let ourselves get lost in the minutia of ministry, the trivial details of church and church issues. Too quicky we can forget our mission. Too easily we can slip into the shadow of the irrelevant.

Like Verbal, let us leave our dialog and emerge into the big picture knowing we must love God, love our neighbor (Lk. 10:27), and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom (Mt. 24:14). Anything else will leave us sidelined by the devil.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

No comments:

Post a Comment