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Thursday, 6 January 2005

The Magician

Opening with a garage execution that’s the most convincing movie murder you’ll see this year, The Magician manages to seem fresh and new without having an original bone in its body. Made for around $3000, its premise is simple: for some unknown reason, low-rent Melbourne hit-man Ray Shoesmith (writer- director Scott Ryan) has decided to let his friend and neighbour Massimo ‘Max’ Totti (cinematographer Massimiliano Andrighetto) make him the subject of a low budget documentary.

It’s a warts-and-all portrait, as Ray has no qualms whatsoever about allowing his kidnappings, bashings, and killings to appear on camera. The result is an episodic film where Ray’s conversations on life, family, Wayne Carey and thieving junkies alternate with his brutal yet often comic dealings with his victims, including a double-dipping drug dealer (Ben Walker) who manages to (maybe) stave off death with talk of a large wad of cash buried on his father’s farm.

For crime fans, this is hardly ground-breaking stuff. The style and setting owes a clear (and acknowledged) debt to the writings of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, the likeable hit-man is a Hollywood cliche, and the conceit of a documentary crew following around a killer goes back at least as far as Man Bites Dog (1992). But so what? With a local film industry seemingly obsessed in recent years with the personal problems of the articulate and handsome, making a film about a blue collar thug seems positively radical.

Almost as impressive is the way this turns the typical weaknesses of low budget film-making into strengths. Don’t have much money? Come up with a story that logically could only be shot on wobbly video. Can’t afford an experienced cast? Create scenarios that’ll hold an audiences’ attention (you’d have to mess up pretty badly to make a scene where a character is forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint dull), then let the actors improvise their dialogue to keep the performances fresh.

The result – standing in stark contrast to just about every local big-screen comedy in recent memory – is packed with ‘funny’ moments that are actually funny. The humour might be as blunt as Ray’s methods of conflict resolution but it works, thanks largely to an astonishingly charming and always compelling performance from first-time actor Ryan. He’s put together, and his performance holds together, one of the sharpest low-budget efforts in years. It’s the kind of film we need to be making more of.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in The Big Issue)

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