Magic is the ultimatum form of escapism – it dares us to leave behind the very rules of reality and believe in something impossible. The idea of a magic taking on politics, then, may well rankle – but in an age where people are more willing than ever to buy into fake narratives, it’s oddly appropriate. And when the person doing the magic is Derren Brown, it’s even more so.
Brown’s psychology-themed illusions have always had a quietly political age – political with a lower case ‘p’. They’re interested in power, susceptibility, persuasion and, above all, misdirection; his most recent specials have seen him debunk religious faith healers as fakes rather than fakirs, and enter Milgram territory to explore whether someone could push another person off a building. Sacrifice is the opposite of that concept, questioning human capacity for selfless generosity rather than social conformity and cruelty.
The hook is no less sensational, as Brown builds up to a dramatic stunt: a showdown that requires someone to take a bullet for someone else. That someone is Phil, an American who believes that illegal immigrants are a threat to the USA.
Brown plays the part of a doctor conducting a clinical trial that will see whether he can help Phil become more decisive. The result sees him have a chip implanted in him and also use a meditation app that he’s told will desensitise him to pain – Brown puts a needle through his hand to prove that it works. Derren’s elaborate constructs are built on tiny tricks and illusions, so it’s a pleasure to see two (the fake hand-impale and the pretend neck chip) so explicit and up-close, giving us a chance to admire his more fundamental use of magic. There’s also a DNA test that claims Phil is not 100% American, but made up of many diverse nationalities – accompanied by him staring into the face of a stranger for four minutes to try and build a sense of empathy with people from overseas.
All of this is tied together by the use of a meditation app with a jingle that is meant to trigger the feelings and sensations Phil goes through in these tests – a jingle that is played on the car radio when Phil finds himself in a heated confrontation between a biker gang and a Mexican immigrant. But put aside the slick production and carefully orchestrated stage work and the special’s most interesting, and most pointed, moment comes during that DNA test and staring session; for while there are always ethical questions that surround Brown’s act of manipulation, it is here that things are their most simple and real, as one person is invited to connect with another social group that he has previously hated solely on the basis of presumed difference. By highlighting the lack of separation between Phil and The Other constructed by society, Brown is challenging him to do the most natural thing in the universe. It’s less a political statement on a party basis and more a demonstration that it’s possible to step out of the narrative politicians and the media construct for us. Magic is, at its best, not about deconstruction but construction; not about cynical deception but the hope of something being possible. Sacrifice is grippingly paced and thoughtfully conceived, but that reminder, in itself, is a little bit of magic to make the world that bit brighter.
Derren Brown: Sacrifice is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.