Film Review: Dealt

Lively and informative documentary about a brilliant sleight-of-hand magician who has a black belt in karate—and is blind.
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Richard Turner, 63, is a proud, borderline-arrogant, mindboggling sleight-of-hand magician—though he prefers the term “card mechanic”—who has a black belt in karate and is totally blind. Blindness really makes him bristle, not the word or his condition, but rather the acknowledgement (his or anyone else’s) that he can’t see. He is adamant about not wanting to be admired or praised because of it. He doesn’t have to worry. His skill with cards is awesome. (I’m using the adjective with precision). Still, there’s no getting around it. His disability makes his achievements that much more stunning.

Luke Korem’s entertaining and subtle documentary Dealt paints a multi-layered portrait of a singular personality and the supportive family that surrounds him. It’s as much a family picture as it is a depiction of the central character in it.

Turner was not born blind, but thanks to a dreadful genetic disease—a form of macular degeneration that also afflicted his sister Lori—he began losing his sight as a youngster and was brutally tormented for it. He recalls kids holding up their third finger in front of his face, asking him what he saw. His own mother chided him, “Must you hold the book so close to your eyes?” Already brimming with rage and self-hate, the San Diego native describes how he’d stare at the sun, “wanting to burn those worthless things out of my head.”

Apocryphal as it sounds, he says he was inspired—and set on his career path—by the old TV show “Maverick,” starring James Garner as the dapper card shark and, more specifically, the words from its theme song, “Living on jacks and queens.” In short order, Turner was mastering the fine art of card trickery, managing to stump iconic magician Dai Vernon, who was able to unravel one of Houdini’s acts but not the how-to of Turner’s.

He refused to learn Braille or use a cane when he attended a school for the blind, and not to be outdone by any seeing person, Turner also rode a motorcycle on the highway, barely discerning the yellow lines that separated streams of traffic.

Though no longer as reckless, the San Antonio-based magician continues to be obsessive. He is virtually never seen without a deck of cards in each hand, shuffling and reshuffling them up to 16 hours a day. Indeed, he falls asleep shuffling cards and when he wakes, the cards allegedly still in hand, he picks up the shuffling where he left off. His wife Kim, a delightful and simpatico figure in her own right, casually remarks that his card shuffling is an ongoing activity even during their more intimate encounters.

Despite his hard-edged assertion of independence, the reality is that Turner is very much dependent on Kim and their son named Asa Spades (you can’t beat that moniker). His sister Lori also plays a significant role in Turner’s life, starting with her presence in it.

But equally important, she demonstrates through example that recognizing her blindness—utilizing a cane and a seeing-eye dog—has not rendered her weak or incompetent. She runs a construction company. Turner’s slow acceptance of his condition serves as a narrative arc. He triumphs on several fronts. On his third nomination, he wins the “Close-up Magician of the Year” award, the magic industry’s Oscar, and at the end of the film he is performing an autobiographical solo show in which he talks about his journey and, of course, performs his rapid-fire, how-did-that-happen, fleet-fingered deception.

Marking his second time at bat (his first documentary was Lord Montagu), Korem forges an inspirational biopic without sentimentality and brings to life the magicians’ subculture—and it is a subculture—as he skillfully interweaves their testimonials to Turner in addition to featuring archival clips of Turner on TV programs, award shows, and as a participant at various international magic conferences.

This film is fun for everybody.

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