The faux-documentary is the DIY of movie genres. The very concept lends itself to cheap productions. Buy a digital camera for a couple hundred bucks and you too can make a movie that never gets distribution. There is a solution, however, and it's free: the one aspect of a film that costs nothing (yet is ironically worth a fortune) is a memorable main character. Scott Ryan's first rate first feature The Magician has a main character well worth remembering. Hired killer Ray Shoesmith (Ryan himself) is a riveting combination of lowlife charmer and violent thug. As he travels around the Melbourne backstreets, plying his trade and telling his story, a seamless mix of character development and aesthetics draws you in and won't let go. The movie was completed over five years ago, so Regent is definitely taking a chance with this nugget of dark comic depravity. Box office prospects are a bit dim, unfortunately, unless it breaks out as a cult item.
Much of the conversation about The Magician will revolve around its modest origins. In 2004 it was shot digitally in and around Melbourne, Australia for the fire sale price of AUD$3000. Ryan, who directs and stars in the film, had never before directed or starred in a film. The shoot, according to Ryan, was spread out over ten days and the script was 90% improvised. After it was in the can, the movie was completed thanks to a monetary infusion from the Film Finance Corporation Australia (FFC) and a creative infusion from Nash Edgerton (The Square), who is on the forefront of some very exciting films currently arriving stateside from Down Under. So its beginnings are meager yet The Magician is a crafty creature.
Ray is a ratty little bugger with a corner pub smile that hides secrets you're safer not knowing but can't wait to discover. He's not a high-paid assassin. He's a mangy mutt, sneaking up on his prey, pistol-ready to "give him the good news." His workplace consists of alleyways and cars. He enjoys his job and the power it bestows upon him, but there might be some humanity left in Ray. His exploits are captured on camera by his neighbor Max (Massimiliano Andrighetto) and these confrontations smartly hint at the possibility of Ray's redemption. This also has us wondering if our interest in Ray is the prurient pull of his violent behavior or if we're rooting for him to act upon that sliver of daylight. When small-time drug dealer Tony (Ben Walker) offers Ray $80,000 to spare his life, Tony is sitting in his own, freshly dug grave in the middle of the Australian nowhere. Off-camera, as Ray contemplates whether to accept Tony's offer or shoot him, we brace ourselves for a very lengthy beat, wondering if a bullet is about to fly into Tony's head. Ryan isn't afraid of silence and watching events unfold naturally, allowing the film to click as a stylistic exercise (with an hallelujah minimum of faux-doc shaky camerawork) and character piece. In quiet interview moments, we get an inkling of how Ray wound up on this path. His eight-year military experience ended badly (he "had a problem with a guy"). He has a daughter he never sees. If he has any real friends, we don't meet them, except maybe Benny (Kane Mason). Less a friend and more a looming occupational hazard, Benny is a drug dealer who needs to leave town immediately or else. Ray helps him disappear...more than once. Helping people is probably not in the hitman's handbook, which makes Ray's behavior even more intriguing and, possibly, more tragic.
The Magician resembles another fictionalized documentary, the NC-17 Belgian film Man Bites Dog. That movie, however, is more satirical and much more violent. We view Man Bites Dog from a distance that Ryan doesn't grant us here. We're sincerely invested in Ray, partially because he blunts his edges with some sensible opinions. Heroin addicts are "idiots," he says, and he speaks out against sexual harassment. We perk up when Ray agrees to have a club-to-body discussion with the punk who broke into Max's home. This passage, in which the ethical line between documentarian and subject is crossed, reads a bit false, yet it's still funny. Indeed, much of the film's humor is dark and lean. Ray's insistence that Clint Eastwood starred in The Dirty Dozen cheekily reminds us that when you argue with a hitman, agree with him even if he's wrong.
According to IMDB, Scott Ryan has not made another film, in any capacity, since The Magician. Unless he decided not to pursue filmmaking, this is simply insane. As an actor, he's controlled and natural and, as Ray, his gum-chomping grin and gutter magnetism are undeniable. Reports claim that most of Edgerton's contributions came in the editing. If so, he contributed enormously. The cross cutting between the major story threads is clean and continually amps our involvement. When moments are left to simmer, the inevitable blasts of violence become much more startling and effective. Only the end credit outtakes blow the mood. Otherwise, for 82 minutes, Ray Shoesmith is as real and scary and fascinating as any similar documentary subject, faux or not.
Distributor: Regent Releasing
Cast: Scott Ryan, Ben Walker, Massimiliano Andrighetto and Kane Mason
Director/Screenwriter: Scott Ryan
Producers: Michele Bennett, Nash Edgerton and Scott Ryan
Genre: Crime drama
Running time: 82 min
Release date: October 29 LA, November 12 NY