Danny Boyle returns to full-tilt cerebral mode for the first time since 2002′s superb 28 Days Later in this heady psychological-thriller-cum-heist-flick that will test the audience’s attention span as well as their tolerance for being led down the wrong garden path. Though there’s plenty to like on a superficial level, Trance is a major step down from Boyle’s recent major works, while at the same time lacking the quiet, unassuming charm of his minor league hit Millions; sadly, this is more in the murky territory of The Beach.
Simon (James McAvoy) is a young fine art auctioneer who gets embroiled in a scheme to steal a highly valuable painting from his place of employment. After the particulars of the heist don’t quite go as planned, a head injury causes Simon to forget where he has stashed the piece. The leader of the gang, Franck (Vincent Cassel), implores Simon to visit a hypnotherapist, and he soon enough ends up in the office of the lovely Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), as she tries to help him remember the location of the lost artwork.
Not much more about Trance’s labyrinthine plot can be said than that, for the fun for many viewers will be in attempting to one-up the film and guess each successive twist that Boyle and scribes Joe Ahearne and John Hodge bombard us with. The problem with Boyle’s approach is clear from the outset, however; why should viewers buy into the various double-crossings and fake-outs if they have no faith in the central conceit itself?
Within seconds of slumping into Elizabeth’s therapy chair, Simon’s mind is like putty in her hands, and though this is lampshaded fairly quickly thereafter – Simon is referred to as highly suggestible – the fact that Elizabeth exhibits the same unflappable knack with other characters seems enormously contrived for the narrative’s sake. In effect, the film is eager to fly by the seat of its pants, and doesn’t seem to much care whether you’ve yet bought into the relatively flaky buildings blocks of the puzzle or not.
If you can get past this hurdle, there are sure pleasures to be had; the film looks absolutely gorgeous for the most part, seeming to be part of a trend of British thrillers that render London’s East End impossibly beautiful. Anthony Dod Mantle’s luscious lensing is accompanied by a pulsing score from Underworld’s Rick Smith that adds considerably to the excitement, even if Boyle’s direction sometimes seems a little lacking in the energy usually present in his films.
Still, credit is due to the performers for trying to push the preposterous narrative into the bounds of sparse credibility as best possible; McAvoy is a potent every-man lead as ever and Vincent Cassel can surely play the slimeball in his sleep by now, but it’s Rosario Dawson, stripping herself as bare as any actress ever has, who runs away with the meatier share of the piece (and saying anything more than that would be criminal).
Almost certain to draw comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s vastly superior mind-melter Inception, Trance minces with the notion of memory in much the same way as that film did dreams. The means through which Boyle rifles within the minds of several characters is starkly similar, presenting the memories, often shape-shifting before our very eyes, to us in a tangible way that nevertheless become progressively more surreal throughout the piece. The use of computer tablets to depict certain aspects of memory on a few occasions, however, ends up feeling a little tacky and unimaginative.
If this thriller is truly guilty of one thing, it is in trying too hard to appear fiendish while failing to cover the basics first. The frequent re-purposing of the facts in order to reveal yet another sting in the tail gets progressively more tiresome by act three, though the film’s surge into the flagrantly ridiculous during its fiery finale does provide a few base thrills.
Still, there’s the feeling that Boyle and his scribes are overplaying their hand; attempting to overwhelm the viewer does not a visceral game of chess make. How much you’ll bite down on Boyle’s shtick will probably depend on your own suggestibility.
Trance is in UK cinemas Wednesday and in the US on April 5th.
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