After trying his hand at science-fiction, winning an Oscar, and testing himself with a one-actor film about a dude with his hand stuck under a rock, director Danny Boyle returns to familiar territory with ‘Trance‘: the lives of scheming, feuding thieves. When Boyle makes movies about criminals, he rarely focuses on their crimes to look instead at their fallout — these are what we might call “after-the-heist films.” The heist, in a Boyle movie, is the easy part. It’s living with yourself, and your accomplices that’s hard.
‘Trance’ is a high-gloss throwback to Boyle’s very first movie: ‘Shallow Grave,’ another tale of three people (two men, one woman) who steal some money and then fall victim to their petty jealousies and paranoias. ‘Trance’ follows much the same narrative arc: it opens with an elaborate theft of a priceless Goya painting from an British auction house. Simon (James McAvoy), who opens the movie with a lengthy direct address monologue in the style (if not the feverish druggy energy) of Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting,’ is the man in charge of protecting the painting when a gang of armed men led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) break in looking to snatch it. Simon grabs the Goya and dashes off to the house safe, but Franck and his men intercept him, knock him on the head, and steal it.
Franck’s litttle heist goes off with out a hitch — until he opens the bag supposedly containing the Goya and finds nothing but an empty picture frame. Somewhere between the podium and the drop box, Simon stole the painting for himself. But his head trauma has given him a wicked case of amnesia and now he can’t remember where he put it. Desperate to find the Goya, Franck forces Simon to visit a hypnotherapist, Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), to see if she can put Simon into a trance and find the memory of where he left it.
I have treaded carefully in my plot synopsis, doing my best not to reveal who among Simon, Franck and Dr. Lamb know or knew each other, and who among them is aligned with who else. It’s sufficient to say that this is both a heist film and an amnesia/hypnotism film — both scenarios in which the audience must be skeptical of everything they see and hear. Things are not what they seem for Simon, Franck and Dr. Lamb, and even after we think we understand the puzzle we’re solving, Boyle will often pull back to reveal a larger puzzle with bigger stakes than we previously understood.
A movie like this lives or dies on the strength of its plot twists and on the charisma of its actors. ‘Trance’ is, in my (non-hypnotized) mind, strong enough but not remarkable. Boyle’s rug pulls are effective but often predictable — in some high-tension scenes you can almost feel his presence, just off-frame, waiting to switch things up yet again. And the film’s narrative labyrinth (constructed by ‘Shallow Grave’ and ‘Trainspotting’ screenwriter John Hodge from the raw materials of a previously produced television film by John Ahearne) doesn’t give Simon, Franck and Dr. Lamb much room to breathe amidst all the switchbacks — even though McAvoy, Cassel and particularly Dawson smolder in their sex scenes. The modern concrete and glass production design produces many effective (though obvious) mirrored shots, where the characters are split or doubled onscreen or, most interestingly of all, presented fuzzy and slightly out of focus, and it takes us a moment or two to realize that Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle are actually filming warped reflections rather than the actors themselves.
As Dr. Lamb begins to manipulate Simon’s mind, the line between reality, memory and dream in ‘Trance’ gets fuzzy. One of the main characters is killed — then gets up off the ground and delivers a warning to another with the top part of their head completely sliced off. The degree to which Boyle commits to that sense of disorientation may turn off some viewers, but it feels right for this story, in which Simon is constantly unsure who or what to trust. If ‘Trance’ never quite comes together into a full-blooded, neo-noir masterpiece, that might just reinforce Boyle’s point: what happens after the heist is messy, and impossible to predict, and the people involve rarely walk away completely satisfied.
‘Trance’ is now playing in theaters.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’