Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge
United Kingdom, 2013
Danny Boyle has yet to make a dull movie, but that appears to be the only consistency he’s concerned with. His new film Trance is as amped up, jittery, and stylistically charged as Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and the rest of his filmography, but the story holds up to barely the most minor scrutiny. Trance‘s inconsistencies go well beyond its script, all the way down to the various flourishes Boyle employs throughout the film, tossing them out as he deems them useless. With James McAvoy as the lead, and a plot that, in its sometimes sublime nuttiness, isn’t easy to pin down as it unfolds, Trance is passable, but too silly.
McAvoy is Simon Newton, a bored art gallery employee with too much time on his hands and too many gambling debts he needs to pay off before he loses his limbs or his life. So he works as the inside man in an art heist that goes wrong when the painting vanishes and his memory–lost after being cracked on the head by the leader of the gang, Franck (Vincent Cassel)–is the only way to get it retrieved and for him to get enough money to pay his way to freedom. Franck’s keen idea is to hire a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to coax and cajole the memory of the painting’s whereabouts out of Simon’s mind. (One can only imagine what Franck’s Plan B was.) The further Simon delves into his subconscious, the more he finds it difficult to know what’s really happening, what’s planted in his head, and what’s just a dream.
McAvoy, especially in the early going, gets to tap into his innately roguish sensibility as an actor, walking us through not only the heist but the rules art gallery employees are taught to be aware of in case of such an occasion. Boyle, in the first act, doesn’t overload us with an excess of style, but one notable choice, when he cuts to Simon talking directly at the audience, is all the more pressing because it’s thrown out almost as soon as it’s introduced. Characters breaking the fourth wall is slightly more rare in film these days than it is on television, and the technique can work when done efficiently and intelligently. Boyle uses it less in this way; as he tends to do now, he simply throws a ton of quirky techniques at the audience and hopes a few of them stick. After nearly 20 years of making features, it’s a bit aggravating to watch someone who can actually deliver the goods–that first act is something of a high point, because everything is on solid, if tense ground–seem so unsure of himself that he has to put as much flash as possible on screen to compensate.
Being fair, Trance is a film where the style can at least serve as a temporary distraction from the increasingly ridiculous plot. It’s as if screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge (Trance is based, in part, on a story Ahearne came up with for a 2001 TV-movie) were at the Plot Twist buffet and wanted to pile on as much as they could to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat benefits, concerned more with quantity than quality. McAvoy, Dawson, and Cassel all do their very best to keep things afloat, but once the third act rolls around and bullets start flying (either in reality or in hypnosis or in flashback, and on and on), the surprises feel purely tacked-on, no longer even remotely realistic. If nothing else, they provide a twisted kind of entertainment, an even sillier and more overheated version of an 80s-era faux-high-class thriller like 9 1/2 Weeks.
Trance is never not silly; for a while, it’s to the film’s credit. Boyle, Hodge, and Ahearne are at least playfully self-aware of this movie’s inherent ridiculousness. But then, once they have to provide answers as to what’s really going on between the main trio and that pesky painting, the house of cards crumples to the ground. Danny Boyle makes propulsive, pulsating and striking visual stories, and Trance is no different. (Dawson and Cassel, separately, are the centerpiece of two very memorable, racy images here.) He is, however, inconsistent in all other arenas of filmmaking. Sometimes, you’ll get a charmer like Millions, and sometimes you’ll get a storytelling mishmash like Sunshine. Trance, in spite of its initial energy, is squarely in the latter camp.
— Josh Spiegel