Winner, SXSW Audience Award for Documentary Feature • ‘Dealt’ is available on demand + plays select Texas cities in November • TLM Rating 3/4
When setting out to make a documentary, it helps to have a subject as dynamic as San Antonio resident Richard Turner. At all hours of the day, no matter where he is or what he’s doing, in Turner’s hand there can be found a deck of cards, being silently shuffled with expert precision. It occurs as naturally and effortlessly as breathing. Whether in the pool, at church, trying to fall asleep or making love to his wife, the cards are in constant motion.
Now might be an opportune time to mention that Turner is a blind magician, even though he doesn’t like either of those words. Firstly, he isn’t fishing for your pity, and secondly, he prefers the term “card mechanic.” Perhaps, this is because he never grew up with aspirations of becoming a magician. He wanted to be a wild-west cardsharp—the guy with his hat tipped to one side who walks into the saloon, charms the women, cheats the men and prances away, hoping nobody shoots him in the back. In the film, he recalls watching James Garner in “Maverick” as a child—before his loss of sight—and sitting so close to the television, the screen encompassed his entire field of vision. All children dream about jumping into the television, but this is what you settle for.
“Dealt” splits its time between the man and the craftsman. For the latter, we’re given a front row seat to Turner’s shows, which range from auditoriums to convention centers. It’s always amazing to watch a master of his trade at work, and while it takes a master to recognize a master, I’m going to make the leap and call Turner a master. He does the ol’ “pick a card, any card” routine, of course, but his most impressive trick—to these untrained eyes, at least—is when he calmly shuffles the deck, then lays out all the cards in perfect, descending order, separated by suit.
If you think that his blindness gives him some extrasensory abilities, like a happy accident in a comic book, you’re wrong. The film goes out of its way to showcase Turner’s determination and discipline, which manifests into ceaseless hours of practice. One home movie shows him quietly practicing in the corner of a room filled only with cardboard boxes of loose cards. It is an obsession bordering on madness bordering on genius. If the blindness did anything, it lit a fire under him. (In a symbolic moment, we see Turner obtain a black belt in karate; he’s pounded into the ground by a succession of trained fighters, but continues to fight, and with a broken bone.)
As time passes, Turner’s pride fizzles out a little and he agrees to start using a keyboard modified for the blind. Before this, he wouldn’t even use a cane or a seeing-eye dog—as a younger man, he rode motorcycles, with a friend behind him to watch for obstacles. As he’s being taught how the keyboard works, we see Turner, for the first time, as an amateur. It’s a jarring moment, but in this green state, there’s a persistence and eagerness to learn that clarifies everything that came before.
The film, directed by Austin-based Luke Korem, doesn’t have much of an angle in capturing Turner’s life, other than to capture it as wholly as possible. By doing so, we get some broad strokes where there could have been some fine penciling. But Turner is an endlessly watchable character, always “on,” in the showbiz sense of the word—during a fishing trip, he tears out the eyeball of a fish and eats it, for no other reason than to amuse the camera and those around him. His story is no different: when put behind a camera, it can’t help but entertain.
Hunter Lanier is a Houston-based film reviewer who appears on the Critics Circle podcast from the Houston Film Critics Society
Cover photo courtesy Roger Tam