Now You See Me (AKA; Things other writers do that annoy me, #4)

Posted: May 19, 2014 in Film reviews, Regarding writing
Tags: ,

Though it would be great to review every film and TV show I ever watch, the truth is I don’t have time for this, hence why I primarily stick to films I see at the cinema( and books). However I saw Now You See Me, last week, and it prompted me to want to write something about it, in particular with regard to its reveal at the end and the nature of cinematic, and more importantly written, mysteries, and so please take this as a combined film review/ writing article.

Now You See Me tells the story of four magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) who are brought together by a mysterious figure to form The Four Horseman, on the surface a big budget Vegas magic act, but in actuality a criminal gang who, in their first Vegas show, convince a man that he’s robbed a bank in Paris. The thing is the Parisian bank really has been robbed, and it soon becomes apparent that the Four Horsemen are effectively being used as Robin Hoods by their mysterious benefactor. They’re hunted by FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, mysterious Interpol agent Mélanie Laurent and magician turned debunker Morgan Freeman, and they cross paths with billionaire Michael Caine.

The film starts well, the leads are all engaging and, initially at least, the tricks make sense. As the film goes along however it becomes increasingly more convoluted, with an age old mystery running in the background that may hold the key to it all. Worse, the leads all become cyphers, but none of this is that annoying. What’s really, REALLY annoying about the film is that it’s final reveal is a complete and utter cheat that makes no sense in context of what you’ve just seen.

And I hate that.

It reminded me of a book of classic Locked Room mysteries I read a year or two back. Now I’d love to write one myself but I never really have— as far as I can recall! So many stories! — because I suspect there aren’t any solutions I could come up with that haven’t already been done to death.

What was interesting about this book were a small number of stories that were, frankly, shit. It seems that within the mystery genre, which I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in unlike many of my friends, there are unfortunate instances where an impossible mystery is set up, which the , usually very smug, detective resolves at the end through the use of information that the reader has not been made privy too.

As a writer and a reader/watcher, this is one of the worst things an author/director can do, a fundamental cheat of the contract between the creator and the consumer.

Now let’s go back to films about magicians featuring Michael Caine, only this time we’ll look at Christopher Nolan’s sublime The Prestige. This is a film full of magic and mystery but, importantly, a film where everything is explained at the end satisfactorily, and the explanations makes perfect sense with what we’ve seen throughout the film; whether it’s the resolution of the mystery surrounding Christian Bale’s character (which is stunningly simple) or the resolution of the mystery around Hugh Jackman’s character (which is pure science fiction) it hardly matters because both make sense within the context of the film, with clues being sewn into the essence of the film from the start. To the point where, in particular with the Bale storyline, you can’t believe you didn’t see it coming, because it’s so obvious.

And that is the essence of a great mystery, at the end of the story, when the effete foreign detective/middle class old lady/drunken gumshoe/curmudgeonly coroner (delete as appropriate) reveals who the murderer was, if they’ve done their job right your first reaction should be “Of course it was Lady Daphne/Reverend Smith/Louis the Sap/Toxik chemical Inc.” (delete as appropriate).

Your first reaction shouldn’t he, “huh?” Because if it is the creator has, in my opinion, failed.

You should be able to look back over the book/film and spot all the little clues that were littered there like breadcrumbs for you to find.

Now don’t get me wrong, this can be a tricky balancing act to undertake, because if you’re scattering clues throughout the story you do run the risk of making it too obvious, of your reader figuring out that it was the Butler what did it before they’ve finished reading chapter 2, but I think that’s a risk worth taking, and you can muddy the waters somewhat. Again part of the trick can be (not always) to have multiple suspects, because even if the reader knows it’s one of four men, he at least doesn’t know which one until the end. For an example of this take Series 6 of the new incarnation of Doctor Who, where the Doctor was ‘killed’ in the opening episode and then had to come up with a way around this. People complain about Steven Moffat’s storylines not making sense, but in this instance the resolution made perfect sense, and had been foreshadowed episodes earlier, the trick was that the series highlighted several possible ways for him to get out of it; the Tesselecta, the living flesh duplicates, the temporal anomaly that created a second Amy etc., the surprise of the resolution wasn’t so much in the nature of the resolution, as it was in which resolution would be used.

Of course a lot of Who fans still complained, but then they’d have complained if Moffat had pulled something out of thin air like that detective in the old story I read, or like the producers of Now You See Me did, which brings us nicely full circle to the end of this post…

Now you See Me is enjoyable, but if you really want to see a magical film you’d be better off watching The Prestige, because the best magic trick is the one you should have seen coming a mile away…

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