Now You See Me (2013) begins as a fun thrill ride. From the outset, Leterrier puts in motion a provocative storyline and complementary editing pace to get the viewer invested in the trick. In the end, the trick is on the audience: we’re looking so closely that we are misdirected, and the truth was in front of us the whole time. That’s what’s intended by the film at least. In actuality, Now You See Me, like the Usual Suspects (Singer, 1995) before it, takes the profilmic for granted, the viewers as easily satisfied, and the final twist in vain. The real trick is that the film appears well designed and “intelligent”, when really it’s just an entertaining journey towards an undeserved and retroactively offensive ending. Once the ‘fifth horseman’ is found out, the entire narrative is devalued; almost nothing matters, and nothing has consequences. A film needs conflict, but when the chief horseman and the chief FBI agent on-the-case are one in the same, the sense of conflict becomes diffuse. What we’re left with is a cheap and rushed explanation of the happenings.
What the film admirably does is bring the audience into the story. From the first scene where almost everyone in the audience will, like the character, pick the seven of diamonds, the audience is invited to participate in the spectacle. In this spectacle within a spectacle, the viewers become the audience of two sets of magic acts, the acts within the film and the acts within the Las Vegas shows within the film. Regarding the Las Vegas shows, Letterier frames the spherical auditorium (for the first two shows) so that the viewer, presumably in a film theater, gets the sense that the theater is one side of the Las Vegas auditorium. The cinema thereby becomes the set for which the magic act is depicted. By framing the floor and seats on the supposedly opposite end of the auditorium, the viewer gets to enjoy the pleasures of a real live magicians’ performance.
While this is great, and highly enjoyable, the acts within the film—the trick that the FBI agent is the one we’ve been looking for—are nonsense, and entirely done to make the twist that much more alarming. In making it more alarming, though, Leterrier confounds the experience, making a mockery of the magic act that the viewer becomes a part of. The explanation of events is fine, but there is very little put into the film for us to care. Rhodes’ (Mark Ruffalo) original character as an FBI agent becomes entirely supplanted by Rhodes, the poverty-stricken son of a great magician who died because of faulty steel manufacturing while performing a deathly magic trick to get back at Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). As an FBI agent, and the character we’re watching track down the fifth horseman, his actions throughout become completely trivial. The emotional displays and sense of urgency—a need to catch those responsible—were all done in vain.
What is problematic here is not that the story is unbelievable or that an FBI agent can’t be the one responsible, but that the film chooses to play its audience. It’s all done for show. Rhodes doesn’t need to do much of what is depicted—the emotional dialogues, the near death conflicts, and especially the isolated ramblings (if he’s alone, he doesn’t need to carry on the act). These things are depicted simply for the viewers, to distract one into not realizing the twist at the end. And while the story doesn’t end up being contradictory, the filmic elements—framing, sound, camera movement, etc.—do. An emotional interlude or zoom into a close up of Rhodes’ frustrated face take advantage of the profilmic by suggesting something different than what the story is telling. To be great, a film must stand alone; it shouldn’t require the participation of the audience to make it matter. A film that does will lose any sense of greatness it achieves by the time it ends. The ride is over; the trick has been explained; all interest has faded.