Dealt review: “a fascinating character study that never forgets the true cost at the heart of obsession”

October 20, 2017

Dealt wants you to know just how talented and how disciplined Richard Turner really is. In its opening moments, we see the self-professed “card mechanic” quietly going through a routine of sit-ups and weightlifting, his hand simultaneously thumbing through a deck of cards as naturally as you or I would breathe. We’re then whisked away to the Magic Castle where Turner runs through alliterative voice exercises, walks to a table, and begins cutting and shuffling the deck in at least a dozen different ways. He then spreads the cards out for everyone to see: they are in perfect numerical and sequential order.

The twist, as it were, doesn’t come until seven minutes into the film’s brisk 85-minute runtime: Richard Turner can’t see. Stricken with macular dystrophy at a young age, Turner lost most of his vision overnight and the little he retained degraded over time until all that was left was darkness. Dealt explores the impact his blindness had on his life and the people closest to him, and how he overcame seemingly impossible odds to become one of—if not the—world’s greatest close-up magicians living today.

Where Dealt, directed by Luke Korem (Lord Montagu), is elevated beyond the typical driven-individual-conquers-adversity narrative is in how it’s as much about how Turner comes to terms with his own personal demons as it is about living without sight. As the documentary crew follows Turner around his home and at various appearances around the globe over the course of a few years in the early 2010s, Dealt posits that he doesn’t so much as want to be successful in spite of his blindness; he wants to live as if he isn’t blind at all.

The film delves into to old photographs and Super-8 footage of a young Turner climbing mountains, traipsing carefully on a thin branch held aloft over a waterfall, studying martial arts. His friends recount tales of Turner watching the lines on the side of the road as a guide while he sped down the highway on a motorcycle. He wouldn’t use a cane. He hated the word ‘blind’. He didn’t even tell his then-fiancee that he was likely to lose his sight completely until after they were married. To Turner, these were all details he could deal with like any other person, and he talks about the events of his life with a deceptive charm that belies his intensity and decades of struggle.

Eventually, he channeled his brash impulses into studying cards. While perhaps less reckless, he’s no less obsessed, spending up to sixteen hours a day shuffling and dealing cards like an unconscious tic. He shows off a closet, packed to the ceiling with unopened decks of playing cards. Turner talks about his cards in terms of vices, mentioning the “vintage” of a particular year of card, or referring to his “three-pack-a-day” habit as if he was trying to cut back on smoking. The camera takes time to linger on idle moments on the couch, chats with his son on a fishing trip, an outing in the city with his wife; no matter where he is, he is rarely seen without cards in one of his hands, constantly fiddling with them and turning them over. Turner isn’t just devoted to handling cards; it’s as if he is possessed by them.

But there’s one refrain that echoes throughout the entire film: Turner wants to be recognized on his own merits, not because of his handicap. He talks about going on talk shows and showing off all the ways cheaters can manipulate a deck of cards, while the film plays old clips from interviews and performances, each one with a host who can’t seem to wait to talk about Turner’s disability. And it’s not just cards: when the story of Turner’s triumph during a brutal test for his black belt made it into the LA Times, Turner hardly showed it to anyone because the headline mentioned he was blind.

These moments of reflection and regret are juxtaposed by interviews with Turner’s sister, Lori Dragt. Afflicted with the same disease a year after Turner, Dragt lost her sight far more rapidly, spending the majority of her life completely blind. Rather than try to act like everything was normal, Lori embraced her own disability, accepting the things she can or cannot control, and planning her life around her blindness accordingly. While Dealt is very much about Richard and his magic, both of their stories are elegantly weaved together, offering two journeys down a similar path and exploring the different ways we lean on others, even when we would prefer not to admit it.

Again, a lot of this is well-worn territory for documentaries and human interest stories, but Dealt is smart enough to leave out the after-school special sermonizing or maudlin narration. Turner’s story could have just as easily come across as too schmaltzy or overly melodramatic, but it’s not. Instead, his journey from arrogant defiance to acceptance of his own limitations comes across as unexpected and surprisingly honest because it allows us to make those connections without being spoon-fed or over-sentimentalizing Turner or his family.

Dealt covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time, but it does so with grace, with an often hands-off approach that lets its subjects—and the fliiiiiiit of one of Turner’s many riffle shuffles—speak for themselves. Whatever your magical knowledge or skill level is, Dealt manages to be an entertaining and fascinating character study by never forgetting the real, oftentimes painful cost at the heart of any obsession, and the realization that success, however we define it, is as much shaped by our own abilities as it is by the people who help us achieve it.

Dealt opens in select New York theaters on Friday, October 20, as well as on cable and digital video-on-demand services, including iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, and more. Dealt will expand to additional select theaters across North America on October 27. For a full list of available video-on-demand services and theaters, visit the official website.