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Dealt

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/09/17 11:51:31

"Richard Turner is not one to play the hand he's dealt at all."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: "Dealt" is a frequently-delightful documentary on Richard Turner, an intriguing and entertaining man at the top of his corner of the magic business despite a major handicap to work around. It's a nifty little story that, in addition to featuring some really astounding close-up magic, manages to take a few nifty narrative turns. Indeed, it arguably wouldn't have been half the movie it is if Turner didn't change between the beginning and the end.

Turner doesn't think of himself as a magician, but a "card mechanic"; the phrase literally means he knows how to manipulate cards, but as he puts in, you get an auto mechanic to fix a car, and you get him to fix a card game. In the opening bit, he performs some amazing bits of trickery - he is the best in the world at dealing the second card from the top of a deck rather than the first, and can un-shuffle a deck - but what both the audience at the show and the one watching the movie soon realizes is that he's not really looking at them, but just a little above. It slowly dawns on them that Turner is visually-impaired. In fact, he is completely blind, having lost his vision as a result of macular dystrophy when he was a child.

Turner, to put it mildly, does not have the healthiest relationship with his disability. Early on, the main impression is that he is practical and surprisingly not bitter; there's an easy rapport to how his son Asa doesn't just warn his father about obstructions, but describes things to Richard's rapt, genuine interest. Director Luke Korem lets the audience coast on the general "that's amazing" good feeling of the premise for a while before starting to play up that Turner's desire to not be defined by his disability can border on denial, as he gets incensed when news stories about him as a card shark even mention that he is blind and he refuses on principle to use the tools that many other visually impaired folks do. This includes his sister Lori Dragt, whose own vision practically disappeared overnight at roughly the same time. By about midway through the film, the audience is starting to wonder just when their discomfort started making a dent in their admiration.

That discomfort helps draw the audience in, wanting a closer look at just what's making Richard Turner tick. Despite his often jarringly-rough edges, most won't be inclined to wince too much. Turner is a charismatic guy both on and off the stage, with entertaining stories and enough genuine curiosity and affection taking the edge off his obsessive nature. There's a great moment of him conversing with a Deaf magician at a convention where it's pointed out that those who can't see and those who can't hear are often very nervous around each other due to the difficulty in communication and completely different ways of experiencing the world, and those convivial moments set a template. His constant practicing gives every scene a unique energy, a combination of focus and distraction that serves to highlight the extreme level of dedication to his craft and, as it continues at times when something else generally gets a person's full attention, highlights his distance from certain norms. It makes a final act where he has to confront what adjustments he will have to make as Asa goes to college both surprisingly understated and not surprising in result.

There is a lot of interesting material for fans of close-up magic and card tricks there as well - a fair amount of time is spent inside the Magic Castle, teaching the audience about great close-up magicians going back a hundred years, most notably Turner's mentor Dai Vernon, but although it's not dry material, it likely won't be a large part of what the audience takes away from the film. We're invested more in Turner than the card tricks himself, although when given the chance to watch Turner do his thing, it's always thrilling, even if we know what he's doing in many cases.

That material, fun as it is, probably wouldn't have carried the film on its own, and it's therefore difficult to imagine what "Dealt" would have been like had Richard Turner, after fifty years, not grown more willing to acknowledge his blindness as a major part of his story. That he has to a certain extent done so gives the filmmakers a lot more to work with, making for an entertaining documentary.

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