'NOW YOU SEE ME' & HOW NOT TO WRITE A PLOT TWIST
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
By Liam Hartley | Film & Television Columnist
In our first edition of 'REVIEWS YOU DIDN'T ASK FOR', columnist Liam Hartley reviews the 2013 film 'Now You See Me' and goes in depth on the art of a plot twist.
Jesse Eisenberg performs a card trick in the opening scene of Now You See Me (2013)
What makes a good plot twist? It’s unexpected, right? Well that’s half of it. Sure, at the end of The Shawshank Redemption it would’ve been unexpected if Andy Dufresne pulled off a mask to reveal that he was an alien all along but that wouldn’t exactly fit the movie very well. No, the best twists are the ones that make complete sense after they’re revealed. A twist that leaves you shocked because you didn’t expect it, but also leaves you annoyed at yourself for not realising it in advance. Now You See Me (2013) somehow fails to meet both of these criteria, by having a twist that is both completely illogical and blatantly obvious.
If you don’t remember Now You See Me… fair enough it came out seven years ago and didn’t exactly stay in the public eye for very long. But overall, it’s okay. It has a slick feel to it that, while often goofy, works for what you’re watching: a dumb heist movie about magicians. Now You See Me falls flat when it tries to paint itself as an intellectual, pull-the-wool-over-your-eyes thriller. It’s not. It’s dumb.
The initial premise is that four magicians are being called together by some Mysterious Figure that will remain mysterious until the twist. These magicians are J Daniel Atlas, Merritt McKinney, Henley Reeves and Jack Wilder, played respectively by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco. (I’ll be honest with you, I had to Google what the character’s names were because I can never think of them as being anything other than the actors so from here on I’m just sticking with the actors’ names. Cool? Cool.)
The Four Horsemen (Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco)
From the outset, this is silly. The idea here is that these are the four best magicians that the Mysterious Figure can find. They’re known as the Four Horsemen. You have Eisenberg: the flashy Criss Angel magician who does elaborate tricks that involve displaying a card on the side of a building. Fine, fair enough. Then there’s Woody Harrelson, a hypnotist who… is a hypnotist. He can hypnotise people. Harrelson’s character essentially breaks the reality of the movie. I know hypnotism is a real thing that people can do but Harrelson literally reads people’s minds and wipes their memories in ways that make absolutely no sense unless he was literally magical (and the movie sits firmly in the “magic isn’t actually real” camp). Despite his incredible abilities, he is something of a has-been and only really uses his power to grift people. Fine, you can imagine the Figure heard about him through the grapevine. Then there’s Isla Fisher, who doesn’t really have anything setting her apart aside from being a woman. Fine, we have the three types of magician: traditional, hypnotist and girl. But wait, there’s one more. Dave Franco plays a street magician who… isn’t a magician and is actually a pickpocket who pretends to be a magician to scam people. Are you seeing the issue yet? Two of them are flashy magicians with established audiences, one of them is a literal mind wizard grifter, and the other isn’t even a real magician. That’s a pretty drastic disparity in skill level there. These are the four best magicians the Mysterious Figure came up with? Or is he trying to train up new talent? In which case why do two of them have established audiences? Whatever, fine, it’s a dumb movie. Move on.
The first twenty or so minutes of Now You See Me lead you to believe that it will follow these magicians but actually the movie is about an FBI agent named Dylan Rhodes played by Mark Ruffalo, as well as a French Interpol agent played by Mélanie Laurent. These two are tasked with tracking the Four Horsemen after they rob a bank in front of an audience using “magic”. Ruffalo is a grumpy generic cop with all the personality of a butter sandwich, who is also 15 years older than the considerably more likeable Laurent, yet the movie still feels the need to strangle them with cupid’s string by the end of the movie. If you do watch this movie again (which I unfortunately had to do to write this) I recommend skipping their scenes. Ridiculous as the Horsemen may be, their scenes are significantly more entertaining. Also present are Morgan Freeman as a magic debunker and Michael Caine as the Horsemen’s benefactor. Neither offer much aside from simply being Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, but that’s good enough for this movie.
The Mysterious Fifth Horseman in his Mysterious Hoodie
Throughout the film the underlying mystery is “Who is the Fifth Horseman?” The Mysterious Figure is supposedly training the Four Horsemen, giving them instructions and setting everything up behind the scenes. Despite being trained by him, the Horsemen have never actually met him. Seemingly no one knows who it is. Here’s the thing though: The Fifth Horseman is ultimately inconsequential. Through a series of flashbacks and Morgan Freeman’s exposition, the other Horsemen are shown pulling all the stops to make the tricks work on their own. There’s no ambiguity, they did everything. The Fifth Horseman is seemingly just giving them instructions and having them carry out his elaborate and frankly ridiculous plan (oh yeah also there’s apparently a secret organisation called “The Eye” which is involved somehow but that receives no explanation and it’s unclear if they had any involvement with the plan or if it was all the one guy). There’s no reason for anyone to believe there is another Horseman until the final trick, yet both Ruffalo and Freeman seem to assume there is one from the outset. However, once we reach the final trick, Freeman is framed as the Fifth Horseman and so realises that there must be another Horseman who deliberately framed him and was somehow always one step ahead of the FBI…
If you would like to avoid spoilers for this mediocre seven-year-old movie, I suggest you stop reading now. Otherwise, we proceed…
Morgan Freeman displaying one of the three different variations of boredom that he maintains throughout the movie
It was Mark Ruffalo! Holy moly, the FBI guy did it?! I sure did not see that coming. Mostly because it wasn’t effectively foreshadowed and there are multiple scenes that directly contradict it! Boy howdy my expectations truly are(n’t) subverted.
As a young chap, I was generally pretty receptive to whatever a movie threw at me. If a plot point didn’t make sense to me, I chalked it up to me not paying enough attention. However, even at 14 my BS-meter went off the charts with this reveal. All I could think was “What about that scene where he got mad at the French chick because he thought she was a double-agent?” And you’re right, teenage me, what about the scene where he got mad at the French chick because he thought she was a double-agent? He had no reason to do that, he knew she wasn’t a double-agent because he was the double-agent. And don’t give me some garbage like “Oh that was all part of the disguise!” No one was even watching him, he started going off on her because Morgan Freeman put the idea in his head. This is the first scene that came to mind, but this is one of many scenes where Mark Ruffalo acts just like a regular, determined FBI agent, even in scenes where he’s by himself, alone with Mélanie Laurent or no one’s even paying attention to him.
Mark Ruffalo being a dick to Mélanie Laurent for no reason
Let’s think back to some of the most well-known twist endings in cinema: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Planet of the Apes, The Empire Strikes Back. What do they all have in common?
They’re all obvious upon re-watch. The only reason we don’t see twists like this coming is because they don’t fit our preconceived notions about what the movie is. Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi movie, so obviously they’re on another planet… surprise! Darth Vader is the bad guy, and this is a pulpy space adventure movie so there’s nothing more to it than that… gotcha! All these movies drop obvious clues about their twist that the viewer ignores the first time around because it’s not what they’re looking for. Planet of the Apes tells you at the start that they’re supposed to be going back to Earth, The Sixth Sense has its main character get shot in the first scene, Fight Club has Brad Pitt showing up in random frames before his character is introduced. Yes, a twist should be unexpected, but the best thing about a movie with a twist ending is often going back to watch the movie again, slapping your hand to your head and saying “How did I not realise this?!” This is also why the best twist movies can be enjoyed even while knowing the twist, it’s fun to see how they plant the seeds right under your nose.
An actual good plot twist for point of reference
Now You See Me does not plant its seeds, at least not well. I thought the movie didn’t have any foreshadowing but upon re-watch, that’s not entirely true. There’s a scene where Woody Harrelson suggests that Mark Ruffalo has “major daddy issues” which feeds directly into his motivation (which also makes no sense but we’ll get to that) as well as the established story of Lionel Shrike, a magician who died trying to perform a dangerous stunt after Morgan Freeman debunked his shows. The latter isn’t really foreshadowing, it’s back story, but it also wouldn’t be in the movie if it weren’t relevant to the plot because that’s how screenwriting works. However, nothing in the movie ever indicates that Ruffalo is, at any point, doing anything other than what we see him do. Every movement he has throughout the film is shown, there would be no opportunity for him to do anything other than be an FBI agent.
So how is he pulling this all off? We don’t even get the stock-standard flashback sequence showing him self-sabotaging to secretly help the magicians. In fact, he was so good at his cover job as an FBI agent, that had he not been involved the Horsemen would’ve had a much easier time of it. Ruffalo gets tackled by a group of hypnotised people, accidentally plants a tracking device on himself, gets the crap beaten out of him, chases Dave Franco down a vent and then has a high-speed car chase. All of which could’ve been avoided if he was even slightly worse at his job… or hell, maybe if he just told the Horsemen that he was their leader. But he doesn’t, he acts exactly like an FBI agent that was desperate to track them down and arrest them would. In the final scene where the Horsemen see him in Central Park, they all go “ooooh!” as they realise he was the Fifth Horseman but honestly, the appropriate reaction would be to assume he was such a determined detective that he’d actually tracked them there and was ready to arrest them again.
Okay, so maybe Ruffalo set it all up in advance, maybe he planned everything prior to the movie’s events and never actually did anything in the movie proper other than play his part as an FBI agent. Does that mean he found time to do all of this while going about his business as a regular FBI agent? Speaking of which, why did he even join the FBI? If he wasn’t going to abuse his power to make the plan go off easier what was the point? I don’t know much about the FBI but I can’t imagine it’s easy to become a field agent. If your one motivation for joining the FBI is to pull off this elaborate heist, you would think you’d use that power a bit more. Freeman deduces that he did use his authority to pull off the final heist but otherwise his actions play out the same way as any law enforcement protagonist.
But wait, hold the phone, I said at the start that the twist was also blatantly obvious. And didn’t I also say earlier that a twist being obvious was a good thing? Well yes, I did say both of those things, but the twist here is obvious for a different reason. Those other movies are obvious on re-watch because of clever foreshadowing. The twist in this movie was obvious on the first viewing… because who else would it be?! By the time we get to the big reveal they’ve established that there is a Fifth Horseman, and that Horseman must be a major character or else what the hell is the point in any of this? It’s not Morgan Freeman, he’s just been framed by the Fifth Horseman and is in prison so it can’t be him. It’s not Mélanie Laurent, that’d be too obvious since she’s already been set up as a red herring. It’s not Michael Caine either, he lost out on $140 million. That leaves one character, the only major character that has never been treated as a suspect. The character you don’t expect except you absolutely do expect it because no protagonist is this generic.
Mark Ruffalo welcomes us to The Eye... whatever the hell that is
The difference between Now You See Me and the movies I mentioned before, is that you can predict the twist based on meta-knowledge of the genre, but not based on the actual events of the movie. Those other twists can be predicted based on the events of the movie, but you usually can’t on initial viewing because of meta-knowledge of the genre. Does that make sense? I just really hate this twist okay.
It’s so stupid. Mark Ruffalo’s motivation is so daft as well. He’s the son of Lionel Shrike, the magician that died in a stunt, and Ruffalo blames literally everyone involved except his father. Michael Caine was the owner of the insurance company that didn’t pay out his father’s life insurance but the man killed himself in a dangerous stunt so obviously that would void it. One of the companies Ruffalo robbed was a safe-manufacturing company that made the safe his father couldn’t get out of and Ruffalo blames them for using “cheap steel” but… it’s a safe! It’s not supposed to open from the inside! If it does its job as a safe what does the steel matter? And of course, the other person he blames is Morgan Freeman for debunking his father’s magic career but… that’s his job! He debunks magicians. What, a man can’t make a living debunking magicians? Freeman didn’t force Shrike to perform a life-threatening stunt, that’s on him. Eat shit Mark Ruffalo, your dad was an idiot (I’m starting to wish I had used the character names now because I’m sure Mark Ruffalo’s real dad is a lovely man).
I would probably have more respect for the movie if it decided Ruffalo was just a bad guy who wanted to take some institutions down a peg. Instead they try to make us sympathise with him for, as Harrelson put it, his unresolved daddy issues. My guy you’re nearly 50, get over it. This twist ruined an otherwise fun, dumb movie. If it just embraced its own campy silliness and didn’t try to pull the wool over its audience’s eyes it would be a far better movie.
Plus, The Prestige did it better.
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