Ray Shoesmith is a hitman. His friend and neighbour, Max, is making a film of Ray's life as he goes about his work. Opening with a hit, one of the few violent moments in the film, we are then presented with Ray as a normal guy. He's not unhinged or insane, nor is he a sociopath. Yet his moral code is a strange and twisted one which advocates violence over other methods. After eight years in the Army, he has moved (following a dishonourable discharge) from one killing field into another - this time killing for "private sector" money. The details of where Ray acquires his targets, or how much he is paid, are never covered. Instead we just follow him as he goes about his day, sometimes on a hit, sometimes not. Ray's next job turns from straightforward to complex, as his latest target convinces him that he can buy his freedom with some money buried at a farm. So begins a journey which is both humorous and unsettling, as we join Ray and Max and a few other characters along the way.
If you take the murders out of the Magician, you essentially have a road movie, and a fairly amiable if unoriginal one. The conversations which Ray and Max have are at their best when they are relaxed and funny, such as their discussion about how much money it would take for them to eat a bowl of shit. So little violence actually takes place that at times it's easy to forget what Ray is, until he does something that reminds us he's a cold-blooded killer.
This is not a slick movie with high production values, like Pulp Fiction, yet it is clearly inspired by Tarantino's style of adding the mundane and everyday into the extraordinary. In Reservoir Dogs we have bank robbers arguing about who played Foxy Brown in the TV show, in The Magician we have a hitman arguing with his friend about whether Clint Eastwood was in The Dirty Dozen. We also have Ray asking matter-of-factly if anyone has any chewing gum, whilst overseeing a man digging his own grave.
In this way, Scott Ryan creates the mundane for the viewer throughout the film. There are jokes about each others sexuality and questions like "if you could have any car, what would it be?". There are also arguments about sleeping arrangements, about whether a man who has peed himself sits in the car or in the boot, and a very complex and lengthy fast food order. These scenes work well in capturing a vision of ordinary 'blokes' doing ordinary 'bloke' things. The film attempts to humanise the characters, and the naturalistic acting and shooting style, all from a vague and improvised 'script', lend themselves to this. As a snapshot of some amusing if fairly dull men on a lengthy car journey, it works. And yet it makes for unintentionally uncomfortable viewing.
Is it the intention of The Magician to portray Ray as a likeable character? Undeniably it is. Although a murderer, Ray's life is justified for us in that his targets are 'bad people' - a drug dealer, a junkie and so on. People who are essentially not going to be missed. What the film fails to do is offer a moral response to this argument. In this case, Max has to be the voice of the audience. It is his responsibility to question Ray and demand of him and answer to his self-justified and amoral lifestyle. He does neither with any conviction. What we are left with is a film with a dangerous ethical vacuum. Ray is a nice guy. Ray is the kind of guy who some people might like to hang out with. Ray is like a one-man A-team; he's the guy you go to when you have a problem the police can't help you with, as in the film's most telling scene.
Max tells Ray that he was burgled and knows who did it, but that the police are helpless due to lack of evidence. Sure enough, a visit is paid to the junkie in question and vigilante justice is routinely meted out. Max has his goods returned, and the criminal is ordered to repay two thousand dollars as a fine. The scenario is presented as 'job done', and somehow praise-worthy. There are no questions asked about where the junkie will get the money from, but it's safe to assume that it won't be a bank loan, more a five-fingered one. The burden of who will be affected has been lifted from Max, only to be dumped on someone else further down the line.
It's this lack of a moral core that exposes the Magician for what it is, a simple glorification of a renegade lifestyle. Ray lives by his own rules, fears no-one, and takes matters of law and order into his own hands. He is utterly convinced of the fact that what he is doing is no big deal and can in fact be easily justified by reductio ad absurdum of the way society functions - "I was a soldier, they kill for government money, therefore killing for a private individual's money is no big deal". He is confident and affable, and dangerous. At no point are we presented with the results of Ray's actions, and in one scene in particular his justification is driven home not only through dialogue, but through a caption intimating that his victim wasn't missed.
Whilst Director Scott Ryan states that he “absolutely hated” the 1992 Belgian film Man Bites Dog, he would do well to grant it a more studied viewing. It's a film that asks far more revealing questions, and fully exposes the faux-documentary makers complicity in the murders their subject commits. It does not simply paint the assassin as "a guy you might like to have a pint with", offering scarcely a nod to their dark side. Man Bites Dog makes the case that when you go down the road of making allowances for behaviour as reprehensible as murder for money, you become an accomplice. You are not merely a voyeur, you become embroiled in it.
In essence, this is an occasionally humorous but ultimately shallow take on the life of a hitman. The scenes intended to shock do not really do so, since a hitman killing people isn't really anything to get surprised about. What is surprising is whose side the Director comes down on - this is not a film to be taken as lightly as he would have us, and is in many ways indicative of the trend towards seeing criminality and it’s twisted morality as commodities to be trivialised. From Reservoir Dogs to the Sopranos to The Magician - violence and murder have never been so devoid of meaning.