Death Defying Acts is a supernatural romantic thriller. The film (a UK-Australian co-production directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta Jones) follows the Hungarian escapologist Harry Houdini in the height of his career in the 1920s.
Impoverished and uneducated Scottish con artist Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) set their sights on Houdini's reward. Mary's psychic act pulls in the public: Benji surreptitiously gathers information on members of the audience, information Mary uses to con them into believing they can reach out to their deceased loved ones.
Their only obstacle is Houdini's protective manager, Sugarman (Timothy Spall). Mary manages to charm the unsuspecting magician, but as they spend more and more time together, Sugarman intervenes, trying to prevent Houdini from becoming entangled with Mary, of whom he is suspicious.
After Sugarman offers Mary money to flee the scene, she explodes into something far more dangerous. As Houdini prepares for his most death defying stunt, the audience is intrigued about how he'll make his escape.
Sugarman's main desire is to see Mary and Benji gone; they claim they will be gone for good once they secure the reward for finding out what Houdini's mother said to him on her death bed. Sugarman realizes he can't get rid of them as easily as he had hoped. Mary is caught trying to open Houdini's chest and covers up by saying she was just searching for something to channel the psychic energy of the deceased.
Benji gets the key to the chest from Sugarman. When Mary and Benji fail to turn up any useful information, they turn again to Sugarman. He tells them that Houdini was out doing a show and missed seeing his mother before she died. When the time comes, Mary is unable to perform the experiment and attempts to leave. At this point Benji starts having a fit on the ground and claims to be channeling Houdini's mother on her death bed, uttering the words of the Kadish and then - addressing Houdini as "Erich" which was his original name, and speaking partly in German and partly in German-accented English asking where he is, and why he isn't with her. This could be interpreted as either a genuine seance or a very skillful and convincing impersonation by the young artist. Houdini then leaves, ashamed because a note he wrote to confirm the veracity of the experiment was removed and revealed to be blank.
The McGarvies are rewarded the $10,000. Mary is disgruntled because she believes Harry doesn't love her as she perceived. When he says he does, they become romantically involved before Houdini embarks on another set of world tours. During his travels, he's climbing a set of stairs when a "Red-Haired Prankster" punches him in the stomach while he wasn't ready and ruptures his appendix and kills him.