Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani, Wahab Sheikh, Matt Cross, Tuppence Middleton
Running Time: 101 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, dreams and nightmares, and the conscious and unconscious, Danny Boyle's Trance plays as if Memento,Vanilla Sky, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception were mixed in a blender to create a concoction Alfred Hitchcock would have appreciated. The few ads there were when it was released try to sell it as a heist movie, and while there is a heist, this is more. Going into details beyond a very basic description is impossible considering if I told you even half of what went on in this movie, you wouldn't believe it. There's twist on top of twist for nearly all its running time and when it ended it occurred to me that I hardly even remember anyone talking about the film when it was released.
Despite relatively strong reviews and an Oscar-winning director behind the lens, this came and went without so much as a peep. As challenging and ambitious as anything released in the first half of the year, it's only drawback might be that the screenplay is almost too intelligent and original, threatening at points to overtake the character-driven element, which is also incredibly strong. And yet that risk is also part of the fun. It also takes the usually tired plot point of hypnosis and does something surprisingly deep with it, turning over on itself so many times I nearly lost count. With mind blowing visuals, one career high performance, kinetic energy and a hypnotic pull of its own, the movie is fittingly hard to shake from memory.
When art auctioneer and gambling addict Simon Newton (James McAvoy) finds himself owing a massive debt, he works out a plan with the dangerous Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his henchmen to rob his own auction house and steal the multi-million dollar painting, "Witches in the Air," by Francisco Goya. But the meticulously planned heist goes awry as Simon is knocked unconscious and in critical condition, greeted as a hero by the media when he eventually comes to. Suffering from amnesia and with no recollection of what he did with the painting, a furious Franck and Simon agree he see a hypnotist in hopes of jogging the repressed memory and locating the painting. That hypnotist is Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who ends up getting way too personally and professionally involved, to the point that we really start to question what's wrong with this woman and what her exact motivations could be. And everyone's motivations are constantly changing and allegiances shifting as they inch closer to retrieving Simon's memory of what happened that day. But what starts as an attempt to glean a single piece of information becomes more complicated, shaking the very foundation of what's real and what's imagined.
With a fascinating fast-paced, narrated prologue that takes us inside the auction house detailing the security plans and procedures in place to prevent a theft, it would be easy to think from the onset that we really were going to be watching a standard (if exceptionally well-made) heist film in the Scorsese mold. Then things start to become a blur, but not because the plot is necessarily complicated per se. What might be the most thrilling, impressive aspect to Joe Ahearne and Jon Hodge's script (adapted from Ahearne's own 2001 British TV movie) is just how straightforward and grounded it is. When the hypnosis comes into play, there's nothing too crazy like the characters entering each others minds or anything like that. Despite being under hypnosis at various points, it never feels as if anyone is acting without their own free will and memories are not accessed unless the subject is psychologically open and avialable to doing so. Of course, Simon isn't for a variety of reasons, which is where most of the drama lies.
All three of these characters have secrets and as they come out we find ourselves shifting our allegiances and support as much they do. In a gutsy move, there really are no heroes or villains here. Just complex characters using each other to get what they want, even when what we think they want is constantly in flux. And it's about much more than the painting. Dawson's role at first glance almost looks like it will strictly be a supporting one, as Elizabeth is cleverly introduced as what looks like a plot device, or at best a vehicle to further the feud over the painting. But with each passing scene the part seems to just grow in importance to the point that it overtakes the entire film in unanticipated ways. Strangely, it's really the first time Dawson's been dramatically tested in a major high profile role, and she responds by delivering the best performance of her career. Not only is she completely believable as a hypnotherapist, but as the mind-bending plot unravels with all its twists and turns, she subtly reveals facets to the character we couldn't have guessed at.
Elizabeth makes for a polarizing character because Dawson holds just enough back as to not give away her confusing motivations, pushing and not pushing certain buttons at just the right times. And prepare to be shocked and awed at just how much of the actress you see in this, as it's surprising the notoriously prudish MPAA didn't give the film an NC-17 on the basis of her full frontal nude scenes alone. But much like everything else in the picture, it serves its purpose, making it easy to see why she took on the challenge. The always reliable Cassel is at most devious and charismatic here as Franck, playing a seasoned, sophisticated crook who isn't exactly unlikable and also has goals that are questionable from the start. He basically steals (no pun intended) the movie out from under McAvoy, who's supposed to be lead despite the very nature of the role making him a blank slate as Simon. Still, he does a commendable job as the hero who really isn't and few performers can top the actor at playing the scrambling, sensitive underdog.
The script, performances, Trainspotting composer Rick Smith's hypnotic score and Anthony Dodd Mantle's mind blowing cinematography all combine to create to what amounts to a seriously trippy movie experience in which the hypnosis sequences seem almost indistinguishable from reality-based scenes. There are many memorable shots, but there's a single reflective image (you'll definitely know it when you see it) in Franck's ultra cool apartment that's probably the most impressive of the year and London is given a visual makeover that makes it unrecognizably dreamlike. To say happenings get a bit convoluted in the third act is an understatement and it's hard escaping the nagging feeling that maybe it doesn't all tightly hold together as the characters become almost machinations of the plot. But there's an extended flashback sequence toward the end that attempts to fill that in and mostly succeeds. Those usually never work, but somehow this one's really compelling, adding rather than detracting from the narrative.
It's hard to fault Boyle for over-ambition when he successfully follows through on so many of the ideas presented. Any criticisms that the Oscar-winning director is somehow "slumming it" by directing a psychological thriller should probably see it first. It represents what's becoming an increasingly rare case of a first-rate filmmaker elevating what could have easily been standard, pulpy material. And if we want to really go there, it's time to admit that Slumdog Millionaire is one of the less painful Best Picture winners in recent memory. This is at least as strong as that or 127 Hours and definitely his most purely entertaining and satisfying effort since Trainspotting.
When characters are just watching themselves on an ipad and it's breathtakingly exciting, that's a sign you're in the hands of a master craftsman. Knowing how versatile he is, it's still tough to imagine Boyle had something like this in him, and yet easy to envision anyone else screwing it up. It could have been an all-out mess, or even turned out to be an almost equally well-made cheesy thriller like this year's Side Effects. What we get instead is a full throttle sensory experience that not only dares you to guess what happens next, but demands multiple viewings to fully absorb.