Richard Turner would have you know he is a “card mechanic,” not a magician. “What I do with cards,” he explains early in “Dealt,” the fascinating and multifaceted documentary about his life and career, “a magician cannot do.” His trademark sleight of hand is a unique sort of rapid-fire, card-controlling deception, the kind of light-fingered, deal-from-the-middle, hide-in-plain-sight hocus-pocus that elicits gasps from audiences, and inspires respect from seasoned Las Vegas game-protection experts. What makes his career all the more remarkable: Turner is completely blind — a fact that leads an amazed audience member to wonder after one of his shows, “Is there a deeper magic that’s happening?”
Maybe. Throughout “Dealt,” however, director Luke Korem offers a more prosaic but no less remarkable explanation for Turner’s status as the Daredevil of card mechanics: sheer force of will. Without giving the game away — I suspect you could watch “Dealt” a dozen or so times and still not fully understand just how Turner does what he does — Korem artfully shuffles the deck in order to alternate between the backstory of the influences that inspired Turner and resolve and the ongoing story of his achievements and evolution.
Some folks take inspiration wherever they can find it. In Turner’s case, he took to heart as a youth a phrase from the theme song of the old “Maverick” TV show, “Living on jacks and queens,” and decided that wheeling and dealing with a 52-card deck would be a dandy way to make a living. The gradual degeneration of his eyesight that began when he was 9 did little to discourage him from following his dream. Nor did it deter him from appreciably riskier pursuits, like riding motorcycles at a time when he could scarcely discern lane divider lines on roads. Later, he refused to accept either pity or discouragement while mastering martial artistry to the point of not merely receiving, but earning, a black belt.
Turner, who proves to be an engaging and candidly forthcoming interview subject, admits that the closer he drew to total darkness, the more he sought to sample as many options as were available to the visually unimpaired. “I’m not going to accept anything less,” he says, “even though the less keeps coming.” Although he’s now totally blind, his dedication to his art is undiminished. Indeed, it’s almost a running gag in “Dealt” that Turner spends most of his waking hours compulsively practicing by shuffling cards — sometimes two decks simultaneously, one in each hand.
“Dealt” is an admiring portrait, but hardly an uncritical one. In his San Antonio home and at various performances and personal appearances, Turner reveals himself as aggressively proud and obsessed with self-sufficiency, and bristles whenever he thinks anyone or anything is diminishing his accomplishments with references to what he calls “the blind situation.” You get the feeling that, if he had his druthers, no one who sees him perform would ever be informed he is sightless. (You also get the feeling that, given his confident dexterity, no one in the audience would ever guess he couldn’t actually see the cards.) During most of the movie, however, it’s clear he couldn’t operate without the devoted assistance of his wife, Kim, and their son, the colorfully named Asa Spades. Turner acknowledges their help gratefully, but not altogether comfortably.
Lori Dragt, Turner’s sister, also is blind (which doesn’t seem to impede her operation of a construction business), and has no compunctions about relying on a seeing-eye dog and other tools for the visually impaired. She indicates that her brother would consider reliance on such things as a sign of weakness — and Turner doesn’t exactly dispute this. As a result, the final scenes of “Dealt” are all the more affecting for illustrating Turner’s newfound willingness to accept things he once deemed unacceptable without significantly compromising his personal code of honor.
Periodically in “Dealt,” Turner waxes nostalgic about transitions and turning points, never sounding more gratified than when he describes the time, early in his career, he impressed Dai Vernon, the legendary magician who famously thwarted Harry Houdini’s attempt to figure out one of his tricks. But Korem’s documentary, like its subject, isn’t stuck in the past. The movie makes it clear that Turner, hale and hearty as he approaches 63, still has tricks up his sleeve. Or to put it another way, one Turner likely would prefer: The mechanic remains open for business.