This is unlikely to be the first, nor will it be the last, review of this Australian comedy written, directed, produced and starring recent multimedia graduate Scott Ryan, that mentions the film Man Bites Dog. Both films have as a premise how interesting it would be to follow a contract killer around on his average day. Both films try to make this experience as comic as possible. Sadly, The Magician suffers by comparison by simply not being funny enough.
The film is shot in a hand-held documentary style with Melbourne-based hitman Ray Shoesmith (Ryan) being tailed by his neighbour, film student and cameraman Max (Massimiliano Andrighetto), who interviews him from behind the camera. Such a style worked very well for Man Bites Dog. However, where it differs dramatically from its brother in celluloid is in the not insignificant matter of the script.
The trouble with Ryan’s first feature is that it is essentially plotless. It is simply a series of not particularly well-improvised set-piece conversations about every day moral dilemmas (which show Ray to be someone with deeply banal and socially unexceptional attitudes to everything from homosexuality to eating shit) with some random br utality thrown in. No doubt this is supposed to make us ponder how such a morally “normal” person can have such an abnormal position on taking another person’s life. But it doesnt, because while many apparently improvised films and television programmes win us over because they end up somewhere, The Magician leaves us ultimately unsatisfied as we feel we have learned nothing about what motivates Ray to do what he does.
This is in sharp distinction to Man Bites Dog, where the plot takes an incredible turn as the camera crew become involved in the atrocities leading us to think about the nature of observational documentary making – at what point are you actually abetting a crime? This almost happens in The Magician when Max unwittingl y gets Ray involved in a personal conflict of his own involving an ex-housemate. Unfortunately, this is a plot non-sequitur, ultimately leaving us none the wiser about the relationship between filmmaker and subject, and no more interested in the main protagonist.
A film stands or falls on the quality of its writing and its performances. Ryan is exceptional in the lead, a genuinely frightening mix of bad teeth, short hair and dark glasses. His co-star is less plausible, his dialogue reminding me at times of the dippy questioning more typical of Ben Dover’s oeuvre. Some of the supports are weak as well – few look as petrified as any normal person would be to be kidnapped and shoved in the boot of a car for example. But all of this would be forgivable if the film took us on a journey.
Instead, it is too much in thrall to the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. Used by Tarantino to counterpoint the work the characters do to the ordinary nature of their private conversations, he nevertheless scripted this off the cuff conversation tightly and then gave us plenty of plot to be thrilled by. Ryan gives us a few dangerous moments, a bit of achronological story-telling and a lot of banal conversation. It’s just not enough to keep us interested.
As Ray might very well have said – good movie making really is all in the execution.