Male Anxiety and The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

The Usual Suspects is an excellent film, correctly celebrated for its non-linear structure and unreliable narrator. But it’s also a fascinating look at male anxiety in the way the characters are consistently calling into question each others’ sexuality and masculinity. As the Suspects themselves jockey to out-man each other Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze looks on showing the virtue of thought and ambiguity amid the cock-fights. It’s an anxiety that seems increasingly pervasive in male-culture, finding angry expression in communities such as Red Pill or in humorous social comment in #masculinitysofragile?. It’s with great prescience that Chris McQuarrie’s script for The Usual Suspects explores this.

Throughout the film the threat of loss of masculinity is ever present, with the possibility of passivity (especially in the sense of sexual penetration) seen as the greatest fear. Not so much death for McManus, Hockney, Fenster and Keaton but buggery as the ultimate humiliation. Their strength is seen in terms of this, their unwillingness to “bend over for anybody” in Kint’s terms. They tease and threaten each other with penetration (Fenster to Hockney “Hey lover boy, you wanna piece?”, McManus to Hockney “You wanna dance with a man for a change?”) When Keaton is arrested he’s told he’s not a business man, “From now on, you’re in the gettin’-fucked-by-us business.” Bending over, being fucked is the greatest threat. Is it any wonder these men grip their guns so tightly throughout the film? This constant reassurance of their masculinity, the acceptable cinematic phallus helps define, and protect them.

Except that it doesn’t. They are all undone by the most passive one of them all. One who talks rather than acts, who hurts and plans. Is it any coincidence that Verbal states that “I’ll probably shit blood tonight” having been punched by Keaton, revealing his own penetrability (unsurprisingly anal). Agent Kujan tries to dominate him mentally and physically, but its his own status as a “cripple” and a “gimp” (which means both disabled and a sexual submissive) that give him an advantage. It’s beyond these men, and their physical anxiety, to understand that they can be controlled by talk, not physicality, that passivity can be controlling.

Fundamentally this is the fear of the feminine (passive, talking, penetrated) that has taken root in our culture since the Victorian era – it’s created a binary opposition where attitudes and qualities accrue on either side and slippage isn’t possible. It’s beyond anyone in the film to see that Verbal Kint could move across boundaries, have qualities from either groups. It’s a division especially riven into US culture from the Western in which masculinity is held superior for its silence, action and ruggedness, with women connected to the home and hearth but also the emasculating forces of civilization.

Oddly it reminds of the classical split between Rome and Greece, and the USA is often compared to Rome. The Greeks had Odysseus praised for his wiles and planning, his cunning and speech. For the Romans he became Ulysses a treacherous man, whose deceit was an un-Roman quality. It may not be un-linked that the Greeks were more interested in sex between men. We don’t know whether Alexander the Great was a top, but it’s clear in the Illiad that Achilles was a bottom.

Classical diversions aside The Usual Suspects suggests the current growing anxiety in some men about their gender – that any quality that aligns them with women/homosexuality is to be driven away. Ironically, this leads to their downfall. Turns out their masculinity is fragile, rather like a Kobayashi mug.

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