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On January 6th 2021, Jacob Angeli partook in an act that would confirm his place in the culture of memes. With the American flag painted across his face, a tattooed hairy bare chest under an animal skin vest, and with a horned fur headdress resting upon his crown, the ‘Yellowstone Wolf’ became the Jamiroquai insurrectionist, the Karen that wanted to speak to the manager of America, or proof of what happens when you hit ‘random’ on a character generator. What was one of the darkest days of American history immediately became accentuated by an active disarmament of the toxicity and hate that lead to swathes of far-right Americans storming the United States Capitol.
As videos and images streamed out of the Capitol, right onto social media platforms, the actions of the insurrectionists became self-incriminating paraphernalia. Jacob Angeli, the proudest boy of all, stood in the Senate, bucking, baying, waving an American flag, reaching the world with his actions and message. His conspiracy theory-laden spew-tinged diatribe inflamed, alarmed, and provoked the political spectrum, and it’s all on video to confirm every action he took. These recordings were made to show their Q-Anon-skewed version of the ‘truth’ and to work as a call to action, seeking the overturn of an ‘unjust election’. Filmed with the utmost pride of someone who believes they are doing the right thing, this is their enduring document, a catalogue of videos that creates a legacy of condemnation and shame for what they have done.
In John McNaughton’s nightmare horror Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, murderous duo Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles), sit in their soulless den of an apartment and watch on a cathode television the home invasion and torture of a family of three that they recorded themselves in the act of doing. For personal use only, this video seeks to assimilate that same adrenaline high they had in the midst of their torture, but rather, they are left dull-faced and bored by their actions. The two watch in disturbing reality the brutal acts of violence they inflict upon the family, indifferent to the document of violence they have created. Violence for the violent is no entertainment at all.
In Daniel Minahan’s acidic satire, Series 7: The Contenders, the natural culmination of reality television and the thirst for violence clashes together in a fictional series that feels all too close to becoming a reality. Here, six contestants are given a gun and the task of hunting and killing each other. The sole survivor is deemed the champion, and must fight in the next series against five new contestants. Series 7: The Contenders arrived at the dawn of the era of school shootings, where footage was captured by security cameras and shown around the world as a warning of what had happened. It criticised and condemned the worlds addiction to violence and death, all the while utilising the machinations of murder as a source of entertainment.
These instances of fictional and non-fictional acts of violence captured on screen are just a handful of the examples that have become the norm throughout visual entertainment media. For the act of insurrection that bookmarked the close of Donald Trump’s term as president, it was alarming how quickly the violence became entertainment, how disturbing the actions of the hate-ridden became comical. While there is stock in finding comedy in darkness, often the notion comedy is tragedy plus time would usually mean that that would happen weeks or months later, but no, now that time is instantaneous.
I mention these as an introduction Scott Ryan’s deft crime-comedy, The Magician, as a manner of highlighting how comfortable the relationship perpetrators are with sharing violence and chaos via a filmed perspective. For the insurrectionists, they were dumbfounded when they found themselves arrested at airports and on no-fly lists; how could they have done wrong, when they were enacting the words of their president? For Henry and Otis, it’s to wallow in the weight of agony that they have inflicted. And for Series 7: The Contenders, it’s to provide clear entertainment for the audience of America.
For Scott Ryan’s affable larrikin-esque hitman, Ray Shoesmith, the documentation of his crimes by neighbour Max (Massimiliano Andrighetto), is akin to Pauline Hanson’s fabled ‘if you are seeing me now, it means I have been murdered’ video. Ray’s moment of truth comes near the end of his criminal exploits. After driving around Victoria, corralling and killing criminals he deems not worthy of being in the city, Ray and Max stand in a desolate alleyway, recording an awkward and affected post-death video. Max gives Ray the direction of ‘be dead serious, but humorous’ when delivering the speech that’ll be played in the circumstance of his death. Ray has never truly reconciled with his own mortality, and he clearly struggles with the concept of the threat of violence upon his life, even though we have witnessed his brazen acts of carnage upon his criminal brethren. How could he be at risk of dying, when he has often been the one who decides who wins the wheel of death?
Equally lacking in Ray’s social awareness is the why he has allowed his neighbour to record his actions. Earlier in the film, a captive crim, destined for death, asks Ray why he’s letting Max film him. He struggles for an answer, just as we struggle to understand why he’d allow such a film to be made. Is it a search for fame? Is it a need to show that on the fringes of society, there is a world of criminals existing in the darkness? Is it to provide authenticity to their actions?
Many wondered why the insurrectionists would live stream obviously criminal acts, condemning their futures to prison so explicitly, and yet, the reality might be as simple as them not feeling they have done anything wrong. For Ray, his actions carry a sense of cleansing the world of criminals, especially the drug dealers who take their own supplies, like the terrified Benny (Kane Mason) who is apprehensive about talking about his criminal actions on camera. Why incriminate yourself on camera, unless you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong?
There’s an act of self-preservation to The Magician, with Ray’s desire to film his actions equaling a desire to show that he existed in the first place. A testament to the fact that he was there, present in life and the world. Where the criminals are a threat unto themselves, with the public never falling into the crossfire, and it’s here that Ray seeks some kind of martyrdom. While Ray carries a strong disdain for drugs and drug users, he’s equally critical of then Prime Minister John Howard for denying him the chance to take drugs.
They’re not going to tell me what to do, it the general vibe that comes with these videotaping criminals, with their actions showcasing a purely anti-government belief, that puts them outside the machinations of society. Like many of the insurrectionists and White terrorists in America, Ray is an ex-army member, having served for eight years and discharged because:
…had a bit of a problem with a guy, and then, y’know… a bit of a personality clash…
While the strain of patriotism that is often associated with defending your country isn’t deeply explored in The Magician, it his slyly hinted at in the final shot, where Max and Ray part ways. Ray, full of purpose, strides across the busy Flinders Street station intersection, into a terminal that has ANZAC day banners adorning the entrance. ‘Wear Your Poppy With Pride’ surrounds Ray, acting as a silent embrace of his military history. Again, this isn’t a dominant focus of The Magician, but it does welcome further interrogation of the sanctuary of hate and violence that the army can provide for some figures. The matter that the far right of America, replete with their open-carry bravado and triumphant display of weaponage in Subways, are almost indistinguishable from the police officers and armed guards that are supposed to protect the country they serve, amplifies this haunting reality.
But Ray is no far right maniac, and while he hints at a Pauline Hanson-esque acceptance, the repeated mundane discussions that he has with Max and his fellow crims suggests that he’s just an ordinary bloke that fell into the wrong line of business. It’s here that triple-threat Scott Ryan imbues The Magician with a dry, ocker-comedy, that disarms the viewer, making Ray feel awfully likeable and approachable. Ray is, quite literally, a cultural reflection of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read.
In a special feature on the out-of-print DVD, the wedding videographer hired to film the interview for the disc asks Scott Ryan about Chopper producing the film. Scott laughs in surprise at the notion that he’d let a violent criminal celebrity produce his film, and responds in bewilderment, clearly thinking, this bloke is tapped in the head if I’d make a film produced by Chopper, then reasserts the interviewer by saying no, it was the producer of Chopper, Michele Bennett.
But just like Chopper, The Magician balances its violence and comedy perfectly. The opening scene where Ray and Max sit in wait for a man to come home, unsettling us with a brutal act of cold blooded violence where Ray ‘gives him the news’ and pops the nameless bloke in the chest with a few bullets, giving the subsequent increasingly mundane discussions that Ray, Max, and the crims they collectively drive to their fates have, a simmering level of tension that shows that the threat of violence is everywhere.
In many ways, there’s a showmanship to Ray, and just like Chopper, he’s larger than life, bigger than any mortality can harness. That desire to have his perceived altruistic existence captured on film is what defines him. As with Chopper, Ray seeks martyrdom, with the notion that he’s ‘cleaning the streets’ and keeping Melbourne safe by eliminating thugs or pushing them into other states being a proudly honorific act, despite the death and violence attached to it.
In one scene, Ray shows Max why words simply don’t work in moments of conflict, when Max gets Ray to retrieve his stolen entertainment system. Ray first tries talking, and smugly assures Max that it’ll fail. It does, deliberately so, leading Ray to talk to the thief with a baseball bat, allowing Max to get his belongings back. An interstitial statement says that the thief went missing a week later. Ray is less of a powder keg than Chopper is, but he’s deeply aware that the language that he speaks best is that of punching, shooting, and bashing blokes up. Even though he has a way with his words, it’s the fist-first discussions that work best for him.
Ray isn’t a man with his own code of morals though, as he questions how good Wayne Carey is as a person, asking how a man could ‘make a mistake’ by sleeping with his best mates wife. Elsewhere, he says he has no issues with the Mardi Gras, but then spits forth a ‘no homo’-esque string of words when Max says he’s quite an attractive man.
Later, as we see Ray and Max drive Benny (Kane Mason) to a nondescript place, they stop by the side of the road to let Mason to let him go to the toilet. We watch as Ray and Max wait, having a friendly discussion with Benny as he heads back to the car. Swiftly, Ray shoots him multiple times in the back, with Benny crumpling to the ground instantly. A title card states that ‘nobody has reported him missing’, making the dialogue of Ray talking about him being a friend, and ensuring that he didn’t suffer, carry a heavier weight than expected. In these moments, it’s clear that Ray operates in a world of outcasts, of the socially bereft, devoid from any grounded connection with the community at large.
Ben didn’t have to die, but because of Ray’s own internal narrative, he had to. The same internal narrative that stumbles within Ray’s mind also decides the fate for Tony (Ben Walker) – a father, a man with an estranged wife, a man who made errors in his life and whose life hangs in the balance throughout most of the film. Ray thinks aloud about what fate is best for Tony, considering his path for redemption or what may come from being given a second chance. Freedom is a sanctuary, and prison is a fate worse than death. So if he is not worthy of freedom, then death is better than anything else. For Ray, he decides who gets freedom and who doesn’t, and it’s that notional decision making that puts The Magician on a taut tight walk of tension.
Ray operates within his own version of truth; an argument about whether Clint Eastwood was in The Dirty Dozen or not highlights his stubbornness, with Ray steadfast that he was. He doesn’t care about ‘the truth’, he just wants to be right. It doesn’t matter that he’s clearly wrong, because in his mind, his correctness was never in doubt. He’s not a conspiracy spewing maniac, but you can see how the strings attach him to those who are. What differentiates him from those figures is the fact that we learn who Ray is as a person, and understand why he is the way he is, helping us empathise and understand him.
Yet, this empathy is one that should only be afforded fictional characters. While we adorn Jacob Angeli with social-media infamy, ensuring he lives on in meme-culture, we do so in a manner that seems like mocking and criticism, but instead it feels more like an acceptance and celebration of his actions. And with celebration and deification comes empathy and acceptance. This is the same celebration that we slathered Mark ‘Chopper’ Read with, that Andrew Dominik masterfully deconstructed in 2000. This is the same celebration that the Australian perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre in 2019 sought, but was denied by the world.
The path to celebrity, infamy, and a status akin to being a God, comes from many avenues, and one of those paths is violence. Whether it be online hate speech, insurrections, or self-recorded acts of criminality, the chaos that criminals choose to wreak on the world can lead them to becoming spokespersons on nightly news. Authors of their own destiny and having some kind of authorial authority approved by the media at large. These people, predominantly men, don’t see their actions as illegal, but rather the only path to justice for them, and we have continually allowed it.
There’s something to be said about ‘being remembered’ when we’re gone – a notion that seems almost absurd given the billions of people who call this planet home. Ray records his ‘last words’, actively searching for something meaningful to say, neglecting the realisation that sometimes meaning comes from the actions we make. For the insurrectionists, the murderers, the wreakers of havoc and chaos, that might mean causing destruction and pain, sinking them into the history books, and creating a pall across time that leads them to have fables written about them, as if Jack the Ripper were some mythical creature.
The truth is, many of us will be forgotten, and many of us will have no lasting legacy beyond the last gasp of our lives. It’s less a matter of whether someone will miss us when we’re gone, and more a question of whether we deserve to be missed. Violent actions or not, the figures in The Magician are examples of a slice of society that is cruelly neglected and left to thrash against each other like raging beasts in a deathpit at a metal concert, forever flinging arms at one another blindly, dousing strangers in sweat and fury.
Society as a whole, through incremental government decisions, has encompassed these groups in strains of poverty and desolation. It’s almost inevitable that they turn to lives of drug running or petty crime, corralled by each other by a vague code of acceptable actions. The Magician is less interested in the minutia of how lives are decided by Ray, but there’s enough to glean that there’s little in the way of reflective thinking taking place.
What is possible sadder about the plight of Ray and Max is that neither seem to know why they’re even doing this in the first place. They are doing it, just because. Is it to make a filmic version of a tag in the woods that says ‘Ray wus here’? It’s clear that Ray’s actions are distinct from those I referred to at the start – he’s not seeking grand infamy or the power to restore a misguided justice, but rather just showing that he is and was a person in the world.
That in itself carries a notion of pity, but Scott Ryan ensures to avoid any pity for his characters, instead preferring to show them in moments of normalcy and contemplation. As two men sit at a park bench, chowing down on deli made burgers, one a captor, the other a captive, their differences drift away, and any notion that Ray might eventually kill the man sitting next to him is gone. These are just two blokes, having lunch. Those mundane discussions further highlight the relatability of what’s going on. Because these are just regular folks who do dangerous and illegal things every so often, they become a little bit more relatable, and because of that, we remember them for how close we all are to slipping into dangerous realms.
The Magician, while predominantly a character study, does highlight how comfortable Australia is with criminality. We may watch the news, and may vocally condemn the actions of gangs and bikies, but we continually lioinise their existence in media. That comfort affords right wing rhetoric to immerse itself in public consciousness, where news outlets originate conspiracy theory bullshit that then gets vomited out of the mouths of elected officials on the other side of the world.
While the late nineties and early oughts were alive with the ‘found footage’ genre, it’s films like The Magician that showed that there was something more to be said than exercising horror tropes. With the continuation of Ray Shoesmith’s narrative in the TV series MrInbetween, Scott Ryan has found a uniquely fascinating Aussie criminal character to explore. He’s not entirely despicable, and he’s not devoutly heinous, but his illegal actions carry a level of criminal comfort that feels disturbingly at home in Australian society.
Maybe it’s the confessional manner that comes with these criminals documenting their illegal activities that makes this all feel a little too comfortable in society as a whole. We see it time and time again, and while we may criticise their actions on social media, and have an enduring discourse about how best to deal with them, one can’t help but wonder if silencing them completely is the best plan of attack. A film like The Magician leaves me conflicted – it’s a fascinating work of micro-budget filmmaking, and that alone should be celebrated, but it leaves me feeling unsettled with the normalcy of it all. I crave some kind of order, and I know that will never come in the world we live in. Yet, I refuse to get used to it.
Director: Scott Ryan
Cast: Scott Ryan, Massimiliano Andrighetto, Ben Walker
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