Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge
Cast: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rated R | 101 Minutes
Release Date: April 12, 2013
Directed by Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, with a script by Trainspotting and Shallow Grave screenwriter John Hodge, Trance is partially adapted from the 2001 made-for-television feature of the same name by writer/director Joe Ahearne.
The psychosexual thriller stars James McAvoy (Atonement) as Simon, a prominent art auctioneer struggling with a serious brain trauma after teaming with underworld crime boss Franck (Vincent Cassel) to steal Francisco Goya’s Witches in the Air from an auction house.
Simon tries (unsuccessfully) to double-cross Franck, who returns the favor by knocking Simon unconscious with a devastating blow to the skull, wiping out any memory concerning the whereabouts of the prized painting. Simon has no recollection of where he hid the stolen masterpiece, forcing Franck to enlist talented hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to try and pinpoint its location – but the deeper Elizabeth probes into Simon’s subconscious, the more complex (and misleading) the mystery becomes.
After Boyle filmed Shallow Grave in 1994, Joe Ahearne sent the director his screenplay for Trance, seeking Boyle’s encouragement and involvement. While Boyle was busy with other projects, Ahearne eventually turned the script into a 2001 television movie, but Boyle never forgot Ahearne’s script, and almost two decades after their original conversation he contacted Ahearne about turning it into a feature film with frequent collaborator John Hodge.
Boyle’s Trance is as gorgeous and absorbing as his previous works – 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire – and fits within the director’s body of work by following the same theme as his other films: they’re all about someone facing impossible odds and striving to overcome them.
Unlike his previous films, however, Trance seems rather… confounding. It feels frenetic, slapdash, and often meaningless. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s cerebral 2009 film Inception, Boyle’s Trance fails to provide the proper setup to navigate its dreamy, hallucinatory narrative. While it’s consistently energetic and artful, Trance is a bit of a mess, lacking structure and consistency.
Of course, confusion is a key component of Boyle’s film. Seeking to probe the deepest recesses of Simon’s unconscious, Dawson’s Elizabeth puts the fragile art auctioneer into a series of hypnotic trances. Simon’s imagination and memories are blurred, creating alternate realities and bizarre, fractured truths. The film quickly spins out of control and descends into extreme violence, which transforms this hypnotic heist flick into something like The Art of the Steal meets Nolan’s Memento, with a side of David Cronenberg’s Scanners.
McAvoy, Dawson, and Cassel deliver great performances but the story switches back and forth far too much to be considered coherent or ultimately satisfying. As much as I want to like Boyle’s latest film, Trance doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny. The thinly written script is the equivalent of Humpty Dumpty, shattered to smithereens and scattered throughout the film’s 101-minute runtime, and not even skilled filmmaker Danny Boyle can put it back together again.
There’s a point in the second act where things go so off the rails that I gave up trying to follow the story and the motivations of the characters. I just assumed there would be a moment in the third act where 10-15 minutes would be devoted to explaining just what the hell is going on here. Luckily, that’s exactly what happened – and at least there’s a halfway reasonable explanation for the film’s bizarre series of events.
The most interesting thing about Boyle’s film is the concept of cinema as a kind of hypnotism. In the film, there are flashbacks that are played out on an iPad, almost like McAvoy is using the device as a sort of security camera into his own mind, to see the ‘true’ version of things.
It’s an interesting statement – that these handheld screens we interact with are now so vital to our existence that they contain the hidden truths of our lives – our secrets – our memories. Boyle has touched on the metaphysical in Trance – as an audience we go in a dark room and watch flickering lights on a giant screen. We forget about the world for two hours. We dodge reality briefly, and that’s really what hypnotism is all about.
Trance is a surreal dream that, upon waking, makes little sense – even though it felt so real at the time. It’s a stimulating bit of suggestion, but Boyle’s film isn’t strong enough to keep you under its spell.
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