Darkly comical and refreshingly unpredictable, The Magician never goes for the throat as viciously as its most obvious predecessor -- Remy Belvaux and Andre Bonzel’s celebrated cinema verite comedy Man Bites Dog -- yet it doesn’t seem to be quite aiming for the same target as that deranged classic. While writer/director/star Scott Ryan’s debut feature may be somewhat derivative, it’s impossible to deny that the film possesses its own unique charm. By intercutting between multiple storylines and giving the unusually easygoing protagonist more time to interact with his victims, Ryan allows us a curious glimpse into the mind of a hired killer who isn’t motivated by sheer psychosis alone, and whose unique code of honor makes a fair amount of sense despite his outwardly reprehensible vocation.
Melbourne hitman Ray Shoesmith (Ryan) is a magician, but not in the traditional sense -- he makes people disappear, and he’s surprisingly efficient at his job. When Ray discovers that his neighbor Max is a filmmaker, he hires him to tag along on a few jobs, and shoot a biographical documentary to be released only in the event of the subject’s death. As the cameras roll, Ray waxes philosophical and carries on with his daily routine, occasionally pausing to slip on some rubber gloves and take care of business. However, while Ray may be a cold-blooded killer, he isn’t without compassion; when his longtime friend Ben gets into a pinch, Ray offers him enough cash to skip town. Later, a scheduled hit takes a surprising turn, prompting Ray and the filmmaker to embark on an improvised road trip with an unexpected third wheel. All the while, Max probes Ray for insight into how he got into his unusual line of work, dropping the occasional non sequitur in order to lighten the mood.
In order for a film like The Magician to work, it’s crucial that the character at the center of the story display genuine charisma. Relaxed on camera, quick to smile, and unusually thoughtful for a man who shouldn’t have a conscience, Ray Shoesmith is the kind of guy we might like to have a drink with, if we didn’t know his occupation. By playing the role without a wink or a hint of irony, Ryan allows us to warm to Ray rather quickly even after we’ve seen firsthand how he earns his pay. And though Ray certainly likes to talk, the quiet moments in The Magician are sometimes the most revealing, because like all great characters, his actions -- not his words -- often prove the most accurate indicator of his true nature.
The other factor that helps to distinguish The Magician from other films of its ilk is Ryan’s screenplay. In many cinema verite-style pseudo-documentaries, the story is structured in a linear manner. By switching between two primary storylines throughout, Ryan strikes a riveting balance that helps to maintain a consistent level of tension that’s always lingering in the background, even when Ray’s smile is at its widest and brightest. The supporting characters are all brought to life with equal conviction, with the scenes between Ray and his unlikely traveling companion alternating between ominous and comical in a way that never lets us know for sure what might happen at any given moment -- especially after Ray surprises us with a sudden act of violence that he defends as a compassionate act of euthanasia. Cameraman Max, the obvious stand-in for the viewer, asks all of the questions that we might while attempting to gain a better understanding of Ray’s circumstances in life, but also scatters his interviews with a few well-placed zingers that yield some of The Magician’s most memorable moments -- such as the scene in which the documentarian and his subject discuss the Australian version of Mardi Gras. A scene where Ray helps Max recover some stolen property proves pivotal in emphasizing the growing trust between the observer and the observed, and Ray’s response to a scatological inquiry while answering the call of nature in the woods is a comic highlight.
Despite all of these positives, some viewers are still bound to argue that The Magician is superfluous because this type of thing has already been done multiple times before, and better. That may be true, but by that logic filmmakers shouldn’t bother to make gangster films anymore because of The Godfather. And if that were the way the film industry worked, we would have missed out on such great films as Casino and Carlito’s Way. Whether or not The Magician rises to the level of its cinematic predecessors may be up for debate, but thanks to a smart, cleverly constructed screenplay and a compelling lead performance, Ryan’s film displays a flair for storytelling that’s notably lacking in many first-time features. It’s a great addition to the Blue Tongue catalogue, and it’ll be interesting to see where Ryan turns up next.
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- Released: 2005
- Review: Darkly comical and refreshingly unpredictable, The Magician never goes for the throat as viciously as its most obvious predecessor -- Remy Belvaux and Andre Bonzel’s celebrated cinema verite comedy Man Bites Dog -- yet it doesn’t seem to be quite aiming fo… (more)