Danny Boyle’s latest movie Trance opens with a thrilling, pulse-pounding heist at an art auction. Slyly narrated by art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy), we watch a gang of thieves pull off a carefully-planned caper set to a thumping techno soundtrack. It’s very exciting to watch, yet the tone is also familiar to anyone who’s watched Boyle’s early work. Trance is a return to the kind of movies Boyle does best—gritty, twisted, flashy-looking thrillers.
In the film, McAvoy’s Simon strikes a deal with a cadre of criminals, led by Vincent Cassel, to pay off his crippling gambling debts by stealing a painting. Unfortunately, during the heist Simon suffers a blow to the head that damages his memory, and he’s unable to recall what he did with the item. Cassel sends him to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) for help, but she may or may not have motives of her own regarding the valuable artwork. Their complicated situation sets off a whole mess of hallucinations, false memories, sexual manipulation and…diverse varieties of violence.
After putting out a couple of softball crowd-pleasers with Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, it’s nice to see that mainstream success hasn’t caused Boyle to lose his edge entirely. Part of the credit is due to screenwriter John Hodge, here working with Boyle for the first time since 2000’s The Beach. Trance is pure vintage 90s Boyle, in both the best and worst senses. The best in that it’s a rollicking, creative thriller that isn’t afraid to go to uncomfortable places, and the worst in that when the movie doesn’t work, it’s like biting into a jelly donut only to find the inside is full of creamed spinach: confusing and ultimately kind of disappointing.
Don’t let that tantalizing frosting fool ya.
Right from the start, Trance feels like the kind of movie you’d expect from Boyle. It clips right along, with an equal sense of cheeky fun and occasionally unsettling darkness. It achieves some impressive visual feats, too, including one particularly awesome trick that I won’t dare ruin here.
As Simon, McAvoy makes an excellent transition from more or less normal to more or less insane, keeping the audience’s sympathy the entire time. He’s a person we want to watch, and want to like. Cassel also does a good job of creating an intriguingly charismatic bad guy in Franck, the mastermind behind the heist.
Trance has a noir vibe to it that’s helped by a hearty helping of paranoia. The plot twists on itself over and over, until the audience isn’t sure who to trust. Showing the dark sides of seemingly normal, even likeable, people is one of Boyle’s strong suits, and in that regard Trance fits in nicely alongside the director’s similarly-minded Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later.
Because revisionist zombie movies and art heist thrillers aren’t really all that different when you think about it.
Unfortunately, the film’s ambitious twists stretch too far beyond the point of believability, particularly in the movie’s last third. There are undisclosed relationships between characters, and important information that’s conveniently withheld until the very end of the film. It’s a sloppy attempt to make audience members overlook glaring plot holes and be willing to change character sympathies based solely on the shocking nature of the information presented.
But because the crazy reveals are all shoehorned in at the very end, that’s not the effect. Instead, it feels like movie commands sympathy for characters who haven’t done enough to earn it.
Most of this problem comes from poor plotting. But part of it is performance-based, specifically Dawson’s. Without revealing too much, the film requires the actress to make an abrupt switch in her character’s behavior two-thirds of the way through, but Dawson just isn’t up to the task. For most of Trance, her Elizabeth is smart, cool and collected. So cool and collected, in fact, that it’s difficult to care about her character at all. This creates a problem when the film’s climax shares Elizabeth’s emotional backstory, and requires the audience to suddenly care about her very much.
In spite of these problems, Trance is still a fun thriller. For the most part, it’s really enjoyable, and a nice return to form from a filmmaker who’s been exploring lamer pastures of late. Just don’t look too far beyond the surface of Trance. Otherwise, you’ll come away from it feeling you’ve been had.
Kind of like this guy.
Take a Drink: every time the film name-checks an artist.
Take a Drink: for every character who undergoes hypnosis.
Finish your Drink: when the ipad with an icon of a framed painting appears.
Do a Shot: each time the opening heist scene is replayed from a different perspective.