(22/09/06) – While he may lack the wand, leggy assistant and assortment of feathered or furry animals in his entourage, Ray Shoesmith is most definitely a magician. And not a post-modern urban conjuror either. No, Ray knows how to make people disappear without a saw or suspended glass box in sight, although his impressive feats usually involve violence and a big hole in the ground. Ray, you see, is a professional assassin.

Scott Ryan’s feature debut The Magician is a tightly run low budget indie film that manages to shock and amuse in equal measure. Ryan himself serves not only as writer-director-producer but also plays the lead – the affable, open but oh-so-violent Ray. It is this dichotomy between the down to earth banter and the actuality of Ray’s day job that makes the film work. By adopting the premise of a documentary film made by youthful undergraduate Max The Magician at once vests itself with a sense of verisimilitude and allows any minor technical inadequacies to become more realistic in the mind of the viewer (the film itself was shot on DV for an absolute pittance). Rather than using the large budget approach of hitman doing a job against all odds The Magician is a small study into what is basically a normal blue collar worker going about his daily work. It’s just that the work happens to involve killing people for money. It is not that he lacks any moral concerns about what he does – when Max is shocked by a sudden, brutal and unexpected execution Ray justifies his actions by pointing out that his victim didn’t suffer. In Ray’s mind he has performed an act of kindness, of humanity, believing that any other hitman would lack the moral decency to put the contract out of his misery in as quick a manner as possible. The horror lies in Ray’s arbitrary moralising – he is shown exercising little restraint at other times, the buzz comes from the fact that he has total control over whether his victim lives or dies.

It is the very insular and underground nature of the subject matter that gives the film its edge. The relationship with the (unseen or digitally masked) filmmaker Max, who is following Ray around for a student film project, questions the boundaries between documentarist and subject, viewer and screen, and shows how easy it is for the impassive documentary maker to become complicit in the actions of his subject. This is a crucial point to any discussion about the documentary process – the principle that even viewing something alters it. The filmmaker’s naivety and inexperience results in his changing the way Ray operates. Having learned about Ray’s business Max mentions that he has had his flat robbed by a local junky and wants Ray to "have a quiet word" with the alleged perpetrator. But in Ray’s book the word "quiet" is only reserved for stalking potential hits. The junky is persuaded to see the error of his ways with a mighty thump from a baseball bat. Similarly, when kidnapping a moderately well-off drug dealer ("I might be a drug-dealer but I’m not a scumbag," he announces defensively) Ray is persuaded to allow his victim into the main part of the car, rather than the claustrophobic boot, only because of the filmmaker’s intervention.

Taking a leaf from the Tarantino book of chatty assassins much of the humour in the film comes from the juxtaposition of the mundane with the exceptional – of normality contrasting with the murky underworld. Thus one long sequence involves taking an order for fast food and another discusses the cost of surgical gloves (available cheaper in packs of twenty from the right stores – hey, you can be a hitman and still keep an eye on the cost of materials). In contrast the hits themselves are swift, jarring and shocking – graphic in their suddenness rather than any on-screen bloodletting.

While The Magician has clear roots in other films (the aforementioned Tarantino, Chopper (2000) and any number of hitman films from Day of the Jackal (1973) to Leon (1994)) its closest precedent is the far darker, sicker black comedy Man Bites Dog (1992). The Magician is disturbingly plausible while at the same time remaining resolutely entertaining. Slick, sick, horrifying fun.

The Magician is released on DVD in the UK on 25/09/06. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and help support Kamera by doing so.