The Torture of the Elements - Now You See Me

Now You See Me was a film that I just recently watched despite being released about a year ago.  I caught part of it on cable and it intrigued me enough to borrow it from the library.  This film was also written up on the Vigilant Citizen site.  This site does have interesting insights on arcane imagery but all too often it collapses into a dead weight of hysteria.  VC goes into Illuminati rigamarole but let me tell you, I think the film's intent is more pedestrian and more disturbing than a big commentary on secret groups.

First things first about Alchemy.  I don't believe at its heart that it has dark intentions.  All of my readings point to it being a belief system about enlightenment much like Buddhism.  Its tenets are about finding balance and bliss in life.

This is not the Alchemy we see in films and books.  I see the exact opposite.  In the Harry Potter series, the alchemical hero, Harry, engages in torture and attempted manslaughter.  But he is still held up to be a man of pure love, worthy of worship.  The same occurs in the film Prometheus, David8 is the alchemical hero but murders the boyfriend of his future Soror Mystica, Elizabeth.  The film implies heavily that he is blameless because he is a slave of the Saturn figure in the film.  Yet, the film also keeps implying that he has free will.

In Now You See Me, the film plays heavily with story elements stolen from The Count of Monte Cristo.  But unlike the far superior Dumas novel, the film subverts Dumas' moral denouncement of revenge.  The hero of Dumas' tale destroys himself in the process of his revenge, the alchemical hero of Now You See Me achieves Quintessence with true love as his reward!

This film celebrates revenge and announces to the viewer that it is a noble pursuit along with robbery.  The practice of revenge is far from the tenets of Alchemy that champions emotional and mental balance.

Entering the Cave

The film begins with an introduction of the four elements and the hidden alchemist.  In order to achieve quintessence the alchemist balances and harnesses the power of the elements.   Above the 4 is the Tria Prima: Mercury, Sulphur and Salt.  The union of those three leads to the union of the red king and the white queen  leading to the birth of the philosopher's stone/child/quintessence/true love.

The hidden alchemist chooses 4 magicians each representing the 4 elements.

Fire - J. Daniel Atlas -The Lovers card
Water - Henley Reeves - The High Priestess card
Air - Merritt McKinney - The Hermit card
Earth - Jack Wilder - Death card

Why did I decide upon these designations for each of these characters?  In the case of J. Daniel and Henley they are presented as the quarreling lovers.  In this film there are two sets of lovers, two Red Kings and two White Queens.  One set actually reaches quintessence at the end of the film.  But in the case of J and Henley their journey, or chemical marriage, has not occurred by the end of this film.  There are rumors that there will be a sequel (my bet is on two sequels) and their ultimate union will be the main story arc for the rest of the films.  I give them the fire and water designation because when these elements finally unite they herald harmony and union of all 4 elements.

Merritt and Jack, I had to think awhile about their designations.  The film is tricky with their visual symbols.  Both display characteristics of the god Mercury and his metal quicksilver.  My final decision rests on the simple fact that Merritt (played by Woody Harrelson) is the more important character, he is also an impish conductor of disharmony between BOTH sets of lovers.  He also has more interaction with J and Henley completing the first iteration of the Tria Prima. Therefore he became the element Air with Jack taking on the role of Earth.

The Alchemist leads them to a dark apartment.

The concept of the cave or castle is that it represents the oven in which the Alchemist tortures/transforms the elements.  The apartment in this film represents the first heating to purify the elements to form them into the stone.  The major symbol that this is so, is the presence of the white rose.  The rose represents the Albedo stage of the great work, it represents the purity that the cooking of the elements aspires to and it also symbolizes the chemical marriage between the Red King and White Queen.

The Nigredo - The First Magic Show

The Nigredo stage represents the death stage.  The film frequently mentions the supposedly doomed Lionel Shrike who died during a Houdini inspired magic trick that had gone horribly wrong.  The figure of Houdini also resides in the film's nemesis, Thaddeus Bradley.  Bradley makes a living debunking magician tricks much like Houdini's quest to debunk spiritualism.  Now why the film makes much ado about a former magician explaining magician tricks really makes no sense.  Since magic shows are built on the fact that everything is sleight of hand and part of the challenge is for the audience to figure out how the trick was done.

The reason why the nemesis is a black man is due to another Alchemical symbol called the Black King or the Ethiopian.  The Black King is the foremost symbol of the Nigredo stage.  He is the stone in its initial state, waiting to be purified.  This film also showcases another King, Old King Saturn, who is Arthur Tressler.  King Saturn is mostly shown in artwork as an old man with a scythe, he is a figure that creates and destroys.

Each round of the stage show highlights how each magician or element begin to work together more harmoniously.  But the real changes are shown in the chemical marriage between the two couples, J Daniel/Henley and Dylan/Alma.  The chemical marriage is the marriage of opposites so frequently alchemical tales have a warring couple.  Out of the two couples the J Daniel/Henley is the most important.  As mentioned before,the film is playing upon the tria prima factor with J Daniel representing sulphur or heart, Henley representing Salt or body and Merritt representing Mercury or Mind.  Usually the tria prima showcases the red king and white queen as representing Sulphur (male) and Mercury (female) with their "rival" falling away as the sulphur and mercury unite.  This film argues that it is J Daniel who must learn to trust Merritt in order reunite with Henley as a more deserving partner.  If there are sequels, the love triangle between all of them will take center stage.  Ultimately J Daniel will make a sacrifice for all his fellow magicians that will herald the philosopher's stone and win him Henley's love.

Now in regards to the actual magic show, it represents the Nigredo as a burial.  A king figure is "buried" in a vault of riches.

The Albedo - The Second Magic Show

The second couple of Dylan and Alma kick off the chemical marriage of the albedo stage.  In artwork the couple is usually shown making love, dying, being buried then to rise and be reborn.  Time is a very important indication in Alchemy.  So the fact that 4 Horseman are performing their 2nd show during Mardi Gras is important.  According to Brian Cotnoir in The Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy, the spring equinox is the height of the great work, the center of the chemical marriage.

The conductor of this process is the Air element which is why Merritt is shown as an instigator of trouble for J Daniel and Henley on their plane trip to New Orleans and he is the main magician in the second show.  The film also shows more albedo symbols such as the clouds the Horseman's plane flies above, the bubble trick that impresses the audience of the second show, and more examples of Merritt's mentalism.

The sacrifice of the King Saturn figure, Tressler, is an indication that elements have achieved conjunction and it is clear that Dylan and Alma have fallen in love.

The Rubedo - The Third Magic Show

Now that the elements have been united, the philosopher's stone is ready to be born.  The indication for the rubedo however is not solely showcased in the last magic show.  The film has a red death in which the audience thinks that Jack Wilder dies in a bid to save the other Horseman.  Wilder dies in an inferno representing the final fire uniting the couple of opposites.

The last 3 Horseman, the Tria Prima, conduct the final show.  Their sacrifice is giving up fame and fortune for the mysterious Eye.   There is also an indication that Mercury/Merritt and Sulphur/J Daniel have come to an understanding if not outright friendship.

The final stage, the philosopher's stone of the film, is the reveal of the 5th Horseman...the Quintessence.  Who turns out to be none other than police officer Dylan Rhodes.


Unfortunately, as most films using Alchemy, the creators thought that merely showing the steps and symbols of Alchemy shows character growth.  They think the symbols will do everything thereby letting characterization fail.  This is why Rowling can think Harry Potter is a symbol of pure love while he commits questionable actions.  It is also why Dylan Rhodes of this film can be the embodiment of the Philosopher's Stone while committing illegal acts and encouraging others to do the same.  Instead of being a force for love and enlightenment, he is a figure of revenge.  His rage at the loss of his father justifies his crimes.  Alchemy is about letting go of desires such as revenge and emotions such as rage.  It is about love for humanity and forgiveness of faults.  But the creators of the story can't see this, since they did their paint by numbers Alchemy kit.

Therefore we see Dylan being rewarded with true love and reunited with his Queen, Alma.  To drive the fact that they are so wonderful...the philosopher's stone...Alma decides not to report Dylan's crimes.

As for the Horseman?  They will get a sequel which will represent the Albedo stage of the work.  Alchemy is a circle, the tracts state that to truly achieve the stone, the great work must be repeated 3 times.  Each cycle represents a more purified stone.

Nigredo Cycle - Now You See Me
Albedo Cycle - Now You See Me 2
Rubedo Cycle - Now You See Me 3

References for this essay:
Lyndy Abraham - A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery
Brian Cotnoir - The Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy
Dennis William Hauck - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Alchemy

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