In an age where information is more accessible than ever, society holds firm to its burning fascination with the unexplainable. Just look at our ever-growing fixation with sci-fi for evidence.
But what continues to be a subject of unmarred obsession is the art of illusion. These fantastical performances from so-called practitioners of magic not only capture our collective imagination, but also blur the line between alchemy and reality, forcing us to question what we believe to be impossible. Over the past decade, the story of this obsession has been increasingly shared through the medium of film.
J.D. Dillard's Sleight is a thrilling drama about a street magician forced to use every trick up his sleeve to save his family. #Sleight is the kind of magician's tale the likes of which we've never seen before, replacing the glamor of the stage with the gritty urban streets of LA and adding a dash of sci-fi for good measure.
On the silver screen we've long explored the fascinating world of magicians, enchanting audiences in a way that's akin to the stage performers of yesteryear. The recently renewed interest in magic has prompted a resurgence in the magician's trade, and with it a new wave of cinematic interpretations of the phenomena. While there's been a definite evolution in the type of magic narratives that have emerged, they're all bound by the same recurring themes: belief, sacrifice and love.
These are the three defining values explored in Sleight. Rather than fame and glory, protagonist Bo (Jacob Latimore) just wants to make a better life for himself and his younger sister, but soon finds himself in a far more desperate situation.
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The Logical Next Step
In a way, every magician movie of the past decade has been leading to Sleight. While it's a completely fresh take on a classic genre, it incorporates those same three themes of belief, sacrifice and love that are found in every great magic narrative, applying them to a more contemporary, relatable setting.
Let's look back at how magic in movies has evolved over the past 10 or so years and see how Hollywood has revived this classic craft with Sleight:
1. The Illusionist (2006)
2006 was truly the year of the magician, with The Illusionist being one of three films released that year that focused on magic. A movie as mysterious as the stage acts themselves, it focuses on a late-19th century Austrian magician (Edward Norton) besotted with a beautiful duchess (Jessica Biel). Their forbidden love takes a tragic turn, attracting the interest of the local police chief (Paul Giamatti) who's obsessed with unlocking the secrets of the magician's craft.
The beauty of The Illusionist is its historical setting. While the early technology of that time made it easier to pull the wool over a naive audience's eyes, even viewers today find themselves scratching their heads over the execution of each wondrous trick. The time period is also perfectly suited to the film's theme of freedom, with The Illusionist's characters stopping at nothing to escape the trappings of social class. It's a sentiment that's echoed in Sleight, specifically during one of Bo's spiels as he performs a magic trick:
"Barriers only exist if we let them."
2. The Prestige (2006)
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale star as early-1900s stage performers embroiled in a lifelong rivalry. Their ongoing feud forces them to take drastic measures as they constantly one-up each other's showmanship.
With each magician pushing the boundaries of illusionism further and further, it becomes increasingly difficult for even the performers to distinguish real from fantasy. Sci-fi has always had a place in magician narratives and The Prestige is no exception. Jackman's character enlists the help of real-life inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to help him pull off the ultimate vanishing trick. A decade later, it's clear that Sleight has taken that very same sci-fi aspect and amped it up to the next level.
Much like Sleight, The Prestige is ultimately a story of sacrifice, willing or otherwise. Magic is more than a way of life; it's a way to achieve the impossible against all odds.
3. Scoop (2006)
A stark contrast to the two aforementioned magician films of the same year, Scoop is a kooky exploration of the world of magic, courtesy of Woody Allen. Hugh Jackman starred in both Scoop and The Prestige, but it was Allen who played the magician in this film, putting his magic skills to good use as he helps a budding reporter (Scarlett Johansson) solve a murder mystery. Despite its comedic tone, Scoop is a prime example of a character using magic in the pursuit of justice — a heavy theme throughout Sleight.
4. Death Defying Acts (2007)
A fictionalized account of a chapter in the great Harry Houdini's life, Death Defying Acts turns the mirror back on the magician. Now a famed debunker of sham spiritualists, Houdini (Guy Pearce) begins to question his own views when he encounters an alleged psychic (Catherine Zeta-Jones) with unique abilities.
After experiencing a tantalizing taste of the supernatural, even Houdini is forced to suspend his disbelief in the face of what appears to be compelling evidence; a conundrum also experienced in Sleight.
A bold tale of romance, Death Defying Acts' premise is similar to that of Allen's second magician film, Magic in the Moonlight, a 2014 comedy romance about a magician (Colin Firth) who begins to fall in love with the very medium (Emma Stone) he's trying to debunk. In the world of magic, it's difficult not to fall in love — just ask Sleight's Seychelle Gabriel.
5. Now You See Me (2013)
In the wake of society's resurged magic craze, Now You See Me presented the world of magicians in a bold, modern, new light. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco are four of the world's greatest magicians who team up to perform the most dazzling magic trick yet: Conducting bank robberies midshow. It's a true Robin Hood tale, with the magicians stealing from the rich (Michael Caine) and giving to the poor (their audience).
Now You See Me is all about outsmarting your opponent; gaining the upper hand to stay one step ahead of the game. Being familiar with the hustle of the streets, it's a game Sleight's Bo knows all too well.
But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two movies is the parallels between the characters' journeys as magicians. Unlike other entertainment industries, great magicians are self-made legends, unable to simply cruise to fame on the backs of others.
It takes great skill and dedication to make it in the world of magic and there's no doubt the superstar performers of Now You See Me worked their way to the top form the very bottom. Both films encompass the message of shaping your own destiny and making your life what you want it to be. As Sleight's Bo says:
"We can do whatever we want if we just believe we're able to."
Feeling enchanted? Check out the trailer for Sleight, which hits cinemas on April 28.