NOW YOU SEE ME. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Melanie Laurent, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language and sexual references). 116 min.
This is an American film about illusionists, who use their trickery to rob banks. Four magicians – J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) perform as an act under the name of “The Four Horsemen”. The name refers to the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation – although one of them is a woman. The four magicians have very different skills. J. Daniel is expert with cards; Henley specialises in Houdini-type escapes; Jack bends objects at will; and Merritt hypnotizes people to make them think they are other than who they are.
The group formed their act after being summoned by someone they didn’t know, but who obviously knew how good they were as magicians. Each of them received a card giving a New York address and telling them when to meet. A year later, they are performing together. They become famous, and are sponsored at the start of their career together by a wealthy insurance magnate, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).
In their opening, headline act in Las Vegas, those watching see “The Four Horsemen” teleporting one of the members of their audience from Las Vegas to a money vault in a Paris bank, where under hypnosis he steals cash that then rains down on the delighted audience. The FBI is called in, when the Paris bank reports that over $3m has disappeared from its vault. Future acts result in similar robberies in other cities. There is a curious Robin Hood element to the group’s burglaries, though, which suggests that motives other than a desire to get rich are somehow involved.
The FBI gives agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and his Interpol partner, Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), the task of figuring out how the group commits its crimes. The group claims there is no explanation except “magic”. An ex-magician, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), is consulted. His special skill is to expose the tricks that other magicians create, and he has made a fortune by publishing the secrets behind magicians’ illusions. Bradley knows that the group steals the money before its performances, and tricks the audience into believing the robbery is happening at the time of their act. The plot of the film has an unexpected twist when Rhodes reveals that the “The Four Horsemen” really want revenge for the death of a magician long ago, in an incident where Bradley was implicated, and the story-line gets even murkier when the name of the magician, who died, is revealed.
The plot in this movie is complex and plays fast and loose with elements of fantasy, but despite its twists and turns, the illusions the group creates are reliably entertaining. As the film progresses, the character of each of the magicians becomes defined in terms of the illusions for which they are responsible, and for that reason, strong character development is missing from the movie - it is the seeming-magic of the tricks that always wins the day. Towards the end of the movie, our attention is diverted to car-chase scenes as the authorities close in on the group, but they also are part of the wider game. Legal pursuit of the magicians is not as interesting as the tricks they play on stage, or off it.
The film tries to engage its viewers in the act of locating where the deception behind the illusions actually lies, but its efforts to engage remain elusive. Movie production studios these days always have a special-effects team at their disposal to create anything they want to show. Thus, it becomes difficult to differentiate special effects created for the sake of the plot in this film from genuine sleights of hand, and, possibly, the movie works too hard to show its own cleverness in creating its illusions.
Taking the theme of the movie to heart - which targets deception and the dividing line between reality and delusion - this is a movie, directed with style, which is enjoyable for what seems to be happening. It is a movie for one to sit back and take in what is occurring on the screen without worrying too much about what it all means.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out 8th. August, 2013.