Trance, Review

Danny Boyle returns to genre film following a successful stint directly the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies with Trance.

Listen to his voice. Listen to that soothing melodic sound. It is reassuring, confident and calm. It also helps that its Scottish tenor is all the more enrapturing for us easily led Yanks. The audible comfort is from the compliment of James McAvoy, the lead of Danny Boyle’s latest cinematic mind-trip.

Normally, voiceover is intended to create a context for the viewer entering a story. But don’t believe it here. With fast-paced lyrical editing that crosscuts between McAvoy’s onscreen fine arts auctioneer and art heists of a hundred years ago, the actor and the director wants to lull you into a place of complacent suggestibility. The trick about this weekend’s Trance is if you will let them take you on that ride.

After two successive Oscar darlings, 127 Hours (2010) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), plus a stint as mastermind behind the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, Boyle has returned to the genre entertainments of his youth. Before he had a lofty “Academy Award Winner” handle before his name and prior to even his date with London based “rabid” zombies in 28 Days Later, this was the guy who made movies about screw-ups trying to make it rich quick. They could be callow youths with heroin addictions 86-ing each other like in Trainspotting (1996) or they could simply be callow youths 86-ing each other, such as in Shallow Grave (1994). Either way, the movies were visual feasts and trippy, fractured narratives that blurred the lines between the real and the artificial.

Boyle returns to this world a wiser man and the scores are bigger and more prestigious, while those stylishly erased lines are at least more essential for the narrative. After all, things are bound to get a little weird when your main character is under heavy hypnosis the whole film, right? Still, it is a group of conniving Brits (and now an American and Frenchman) squabbling over a surprisingly small amount of money.

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Simon (McAvoy) is a perfectly ordinary fine arts auctioneer who knows the protocols. If somebody tries to steal the paintings, he takes them to a vault in the basement where only he knows the code. The one major rule driven into his head about such an event is to not be a hero. No art is worth dying for. Unfortunately, Simon seems to forget that when Franck (Vincent Cassel) leads an armed robbery at the auction of the famed Rembrandt, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” It is one of the great classics from an artist best known for his portraiture. It is also exceedingly special as the artist placed his own face in the work. Franck wants it, but Simon decides to play the hero and stick Franck with a taser when confronted by the thief at the vault. Simon must have seen that done in a dozen other movies, but never thought of what may happen next…such as Franck getting up five seconds later and causing a massive concussion by smashing the butt of a shotgun into Simon’s skull. 

A month later, Simon is released from the hospital despite suffering a mild case of amnesia. He can remember his name, his profession and his apartment. All that seems to be missing is the day of the accident. Overall, his condition could be worse. It gets that way when Franck and the rest of the gang show up at his flat to kindly remove his fingernails. It turns out Simon was involved in the heist to some capacity, at least that is what they say and he cut the canvas out of a then-empty frame. With no prize at hand for Franck, as well as the loss of use for Simon’s, the bandits show a compassionate side and decide to help their forgetful buddy with his problem. Enter Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnosis therapist who Simon chooses and Franck caringly spots the treatment for. With friends like these…

The film quickly becomes a cat-and-mouse game of he said, she said and he said what she may have suggested he say if he, in fact, ever said it. As the lines of reality begin to dissolve in this fractured story, the role of authority between the three leads alternates like the threads of daydreams. To say anymore would be to give the whole game away.

Trance only works if you let the visual con play out like the willing dope who volunteers at a magic show. I have never been hypnotized, but I hope it is not quite like this. The way that Elizabeth and eventually Franck with his team, enter Simon’s mind under different scenarios feels occasionally like the sequel to a certain Christopher Nolan movie. I could almost hear the rumble of a train at certain points.

However, this game is not to be taken so literally. There are many twists and turns, but it is ultimately in service more to the thrill of being made the director’s fool and hopping around some trippy hallucinations. The plot, crafted by scripters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, will not withstand the level of scrutiny reserved for an elementary school creative writing class, but it fulfills its purpose. Like the thin mental constructions Elizabeth puts in Simon’s head, it is merely an illusion meant to create a false sense of security for the audience, even as she and the filmmakers are already grabbing the rug beneath our feet.

Trance’s cast of characters, which also includes Danny Sapani, Matt Cross and Wahab Sheikh as the assorted background goons on loan from Guy Ritchie, is also game to pull this score off. McAvoy plays the straight man who’s about to crack at the edges with the appropriate aplomb. He can call on his Professor Xavier kindness when needed at the beginning and remind audiences that he got his start in projects like Shameless (UK) and, later on, The Last King of Scotland.

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Dawson is similarly disarming as Elizabeth. Her genuine compassion for Simon is as felt as the greed in her eyes when the patient is asleep and mommy can talk to papa Franck. Cassel brings the usual smugness his American roles require, but there is something low rent and laid back about this supposed master thief that is a nice change of pace from his stint as a heavy in the Ocean’s movies.

Trance is a visually stunning sleight of hand that has more reflective surfaces onscreen than a fun house. Boyle is obviously having a blast returning to genre and playing in the tropes that gave him his start. At its most lucid and ridiculous, the movie’s ADD pace becomes hypnotic. Yet, the lightness with which the spell is performed will always keep the viewer partially aware of the dream it casts.  Such a breeziness does not hold up to the durability of Boyle’s earliest classics, however it is more than worth listening to the sound of his voice for.

Den of Gee Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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4 out of 5