For Melbourne viewers, there is definitely some kind of thrill attached to seeing, on a big screen, something that approximates a home video shot unfussily around the laneways at the top half of Bourke St. Whether Scott Ryan's The Magician constitutes a renewal of the Australian industry, however, is another issue altogether.
The film offers a clever low-budget concept. Presented as a mockumentary, it is a portrait of Ray (Ryan), a hit man for an unseen criminal boss. We see him at work, spiriting debtors away, sometimes murdering people, at other times inexplicably setting them free.
Like so many low-budget films, this one is a gabfest. Ray talks about his past and future, about his likes and dislikes. An unlikely but inevitable rapport springs up between the filmmaker, Max (Massimiliano Andrighetto), and Ray, wavering between complicity and aggravation.
I did not see the original version of this work presented at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in 2003. Picked up by producers Michele Bennett and Nash Edgerton, and worked over in post-production, its pieces (including a rural interlude shot in Moe) have presumably been shuffled and heightened in an effort to beef up narrative intrigue and tension.
The attempt only half works. Nothing can wholly disguise the fact that this is a film that lacks any rigour, passing off its own shambling nature under the cover of cinéma-vérité realism. The semi-improvised chatter quickly becomes repetitive (Max has the annoying habit of repeating every answer Ray gives as he thinks up his next question). Ryan's evident skill and paradoxical charm in the role of Ray can only carry the story so far.
More damagingly, the film picks up and drops themes without developing them. At one point, during a heated discussion of burgers versus souvlaki, it threatens to become a Tarantino-style comedy about the everyday habits of crims. At another point, Max suddenly starts quizzing Ray about his attitude to gayness, as if to hint at a homoerotic interpretation of proceedings. But none of this adds up to anything.
Australia, like most other countries, is constantly on the lookout for the little, handmade movie that will "break out" into the commercial market and take the world by storm. The Magician, despite some enjoyable moments and a blast of Spectrum's "I'll Be Gone" on the soundtrack over the end credits, is not that movie.
© Adrian Martin September 2005