'Dealt': Film Review

Courtesy of Roger Tam
An engaging disability-centric doc whose appeal for magic buffs is overshadowed by an inspirational focus.
10/20/2017

Luke Korem's doc profiles a card sharp whose skills would be mind-blowing even if he weren't blind.

"Play the hand you're dealt" has an obvious double-meaning in Luke Korem's engaging Dealt, a doc whose star boasts a godlike control of playing cards but must learn to accept the blindness he has spent his life trying to hide. Card technician Richard Turner's skills would be astonishing for a person with no disability, and they supply the film with some thrilling moments. But Korem proves to be more focused on his decades-long path to acceptance, in a polished portrait that should play very well to those with eye disease and to those who support them. The winner of SXSW's documentary audience award, it clearly has an appeal beyond that demographic as well.

At first, the picture seems to target those interested in sleight-of-hand. Explaining that a "technician" isn't the same as a magician — "What I can do with cards, a magician can't do," he says — Turner deals round after round of poker and blackjack in front of us, each time knowing exactly which cards will go to each player. We hear how James Garner's Maverick inspired his love of playing cards as a child, and how learning to manipulate them gave his high level of nervous energy an outlet. He has claimed to practice 16 hours a day, and what we see backs that up: Wherever he is, whatever he's doing, Turner has at least one hand cutting, shuffling and fanning cards. A friend recalls seeing him go to bed shuffling, only stopping when he drifted off; in the morning, his hands started working before he opened his eyes. (His wife Kim has even caught him practicing while they were having sex.)

But interspersed with examples of his obsession, testimonials from casino professionals and vintage clips of TV appearances, we get a history of Turner's blindness and his proud refusal to accept it. He wouldn't learn Braille or use a cane when attending a school for the blind; he hated news articles that used his disability to magnify the impressiveness of his achievements (accomplishments like getting a black belt from an especially rigorous karate school).

For many years, Turner managed to avoid the usual coping techniques by having his son always at his side. Attempting to make the boy a card sharp from birth (he decorated the nursery with spades and clubs, and shamelessly named the child Asa Spades Turner), he made him part of the act before he was 10. Even after Asa decided not to perform, he remained his dad's right-hand man at public appearances, making things so easy on him that some in the audience didn't even realize the man working the crowd couldn't see the cards he dealt.

The film's growing focus on Turner's chip-on-shoulder attitude about blindness crystallizes when Asa goes away to college, leaving Turner more helpless than he perhaps expected. No longer able to fake his way through everyday activities, he seems to experience a near-depressive period before, ever the high achiever, he decides to embrace the tools available to him.

While general audiences may wish for a bit more technical information about how Turner keeps track of cards without being able to see them, Korem understandably seizes on the emotional arc before him, following Turner's late-middle-age crisis through to its happy resolution. The story should be especially useful to those who, like Turner, were born with eyesight and lost it over time. As he shows, life doesn't just go on after such news — it can be filled with marvels.

Production companies: Keep On Running Pictures, Ralph Smyth Entertainment
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Director: Luke Korem
Screenwriters: Bradley Jackson, Luke Korem
Producers: Russell Wayne Groves, Luke Korem
Executive producers: Don Aaron, Pat Condon, Sara Dysart, Ellen LeBlanc, Steve LeBlanc, Graham Weston
Director of photography: Jacob Hamilton
Editors: Derek Boonstra, Luke Korem
Composers: Duncan Thum, Sebastian Ornemark
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival

85 minutes

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