The thing about director Danny Boyle is that he never ties himself down to one particular genre. Every single one of his films is vastly different from the last, whether it is drug addiction in “Trainspotting,” zombie horror in “28 Days Later,” science fiction in “Sunshine,” etc. After going through a short phase of (great) award winning films with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” Boyle’s new film “Trance” is a return of sorts to the pulpier material found in his early films, but it eventually begins to feel more like a step backwards than a fun throwback.
Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer pulled into a group of thieves concocting a heist to steal the Francisco Goya painting “Witches in the Air” at the latest auction. The heist goes off fairly well, with the exception of a moment where Simon pulls a taser on ringleader Frank (Vincent Cassel) to make it look more genuine when he gives over the painting. In retaliation for the unplanned act, Frank knocks Simon out with his gun before making off with the art…or so he thinks. It turns out Simon hid the painting for himself, but because Frank knocked him out he can’t remember where he put it. In order to get the information out of Simon, he sends him to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), which complicates things in more ways than one.
Viewers expecting another feel-good inspirational Boyle film will want to turn away now, as “Trance” is much more in line with the mean and lean “Shallow Grave” than “Slumdog Millionaire.” Completing the cycle is the return of his old screenwriter John Hodge, whose blend of twists and shocking violence comes back in full force here. Unfortunately, his storytelling is more like the messy “The Beach” than the well-oiled thrills of “Grave.” Everything starts out very well, pulled together with entertaining snap and ease. And once Elizabeth is introduced, the hypnotherapy scenes have a uniquely soothing effect as she peels back the layers in Simon’s mind.
What makes these scenes so interesting to watch is that they actually feel like how dreams really are: small in scale but often filled with details and occurrences that can’t be explained. There are no massive special effects like snow mountains or folding cities, just seemingly normal yet unexplainable events that play with the audience’s perception and hold on the film’s established reality. Guiding them through the dreamlike happenings is the talented trio of actors carrying it all on their own. McAvoy and Cassel are as good as they’ve ever been, but this is really Dawson’s film to shine as she navigates the tricky role handed to her. She is successfully able to play the part of innocent outsider while at the same time showing a level of command and control when interacting with these thugs.
It’s a shame then that even with such an intriguing setup and follow-through, the film slowly begins to succumb to it’s illusive intentions, where the mysterious soon shifts to muddled. Reality and imagination become intertwined, but not in that compelling way that others like “Inception” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” are. And as with other heist films, there are plot turns that reveal the trick behind the magic, and neither of them are particularly well done.
They represent a complete tonal shift that suddenly turns the film into something it was not before (kind of like a few other Boyle films). The intention is to flip the plot on its head, and instead it feels abrupt and misguided. There are clues to them placed throughout the beginning and middle, so it’s not like they weren’t planned out with that in mind, but the end result just feels like a jumble. There was actually a point near the end when things turn very grim regarding a tertiary character that I asked myself, “I thought this was about a painting?”
As the years go by, I can see “Trance” becoming an interesting curiosity simply on the fact that it is a Danny Boyle film. From a technical standpoint, from the cinematography to the visual palette, it’s impeccably done. The sleek, shapely and colorful set design adds to the entrancing mood and atmosphere, and the film moves at an entertaining enough pace even as it steamrolls into very over-the-top territory. “Trance” is much like a dream itself, when it’s done you’re not sure what to make of it, and it will most likely fizzle away quickly, but it held your attention even as it lost your comprehension.