Trance is classic Danny Boyle in every sense of the word, a sophisticated thriller more in the vein of Trainspotting than his more linear recent efforts. It’s unsurprising, then, that the movie reunites Boyle with John Hodge, who previously wrote Trainspotting and The Beach for the filmmaker. In a nutshell, Trance is a twisty, hallucinogenic thriller combining elements of film noir and a typical heist picture, filtered through a mind-fuck lens. It’s an ideal project for Boyle, who called upon his usual arsenal of visual storytelling techniques to create a perpetual aura of uncertainty and anxiety. Anyone expecting something as cut-and-dried as Slumdog Millionaire or 127 Hours will certainly walk away perplexed, but those eager to engage their brain will find plenty of mental fodder here. Trance is admittedly not entirely satisfying, but it’s a unique trip worth taking for its stunning visual construction and a handful of convincing performances.
An employee at a London auction house, Simon Newtown (James McAvoy) conspires with career crook Franck (Vincent Cassel) to steal a Francisco Goya painting worth millions of dollars. But a complication during the heist leaves Simon unconscious and the artwork missing. Unfortunately, Simon loses his memory of what happened during the robbery, and has no idea where he stashed the Goya. With Franck’s torture methods proving ineffective, they enlist the help of hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who may be able to use hypnosis to dig the information from Simon’s scrambled mind. But the more Simon is put under, the more his dreams begin to blur with reality, and it gradually becomes clear that Simon’s memories may be better left untouched.
Trance is actually an adaptation of a low-budget television movie from 2001, the writer-director of which, Joe Ahearne, had a hand in the scripting here. The movie opens beautifully, with a stunning sequence introducing us to Simon who fills us in on the history of art theft and the security measures of the establishment he works for. We see the heist unfold during Simon’s narration, a brilliantly engaging device that hooks us from the very beginning. Although Boyle never tops the enthralling simplicity of the picture’s opening, Trance contains a number of standout sequences. When Boyle delves into Simon’s troubled head, the filmmaker runs rampant, abandoning all sense of coherence in favour of outlandish, visually striking images, as we get a glimpse into the dark recesses of the man’s mind. The ultra-stylish cinematography by Boyle mainstay Anthony Dod Mantle is sensational. Shooting digitally, Mantle’s photography is beautifully ethereal, psychedelic and arresting, while the editing by Jon Harris gives the dream sequences a jittery edge. From a technical perspective, Trance is impossible to fault.
Throughout the narrative, the script raises the typical noir question of who’s playing who, and it becomes unclear exactly who the heroes and villains of this picture truly are. Moreover, as Simon’s sessions with Elizabeth increase in volume, we find ourselves in a similar position to Simon, who’s disorientated and unable to separate reality from fantasy. Boyle keeps teasing us, compelling us to wonder just how many of the narrative goings-on are actually “real” (within the context of how they’re presented, that is) and how many are warped through the perception of the characters. People will no doubt compare Trance to Inception in that sense, but Boyle actually one-ups Nolan; whereas Inception‘s job was to be a lavish blockbuster, Boyle is unafraid to truly mess with us through his incoherent visuals, evoking the spirit of 1929’s Un Chien Andalou. But in spite of its strengths, Trance is not as involving as it could’ve been, as the complexity denies us the chance to get invested in the characters. The script is fairly messy and overwrought, lacking in dramatic effect.
McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) is a reliably charismatic performer, and he makes for a beguiling Simon. Boyle takes Simon to unexpectedly dark places as the narrative keeps unfolding, yet McAvoy handles the role’s less savoury aspects with confidence. Even more impressive is Cassel, showing both toughness and a sense of humanity as Franck. Even though his role is more or less villainous, Cassel is always accessible and watchable, while still coming across as a real threat. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson had the hardest role to play, yet she pulls it off with assurance. She’s a credible hypnotherapist whose voice is soothing during the hypnotherapy sessions, and she was also ready to tackle all of the role’s complexities. It’s such a confident performance from the actress.
It remains to be seen if Trance will hold up to post-viewing scrutiny, as it’s difficult to rationalise the motivations of the central characters and it seems fruitless trying to decipher what’s real. It’s a solid flick, yet Boyle and his crew worked so hard to create something so intensely beautiful that it won’t leave a substantial impact, and it lacks soul and humanity. But although it’s not one of Boyle’s best, it’s a slick ride and a worthy addition to his filmmaking oeuvre that shows more creativity and visual flair than 99% of Hollywood’s current output.