Danny Boyle's latest film Trance begins with a well-organized heist to steal a Goya painting worth over $30 million. In the process, an art auctioneer named Simon (James McAvoy), who has been told repeatedly that he shouldn't try to be hero and that no painting is worth a human life, disobeys his training and is knocked unconscious for his efforts. But when the heist's ringleader (Vincent Cassel) realizes that he doesn't have the Goya and forces Simon to hire a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to help Simon locate it, that phrase "Don't be a hero" resonates more and more as it becomes increasingly unclear who is tricking whom and even who the audience should be rooting for. Watch my ReThink Review of Trance below (transcript following).
Other than his penchant for bright colors, quick cutting, and pulsing electric soundtracks, director Danny Boyle's filmography defies easy categorization, with such diverse works as the junkie adventure Trainspotting, sprinting zombies in 28 Days Later, the rags-to-riches Mumbai love story Slumdog Millionaire, and slow motion amputation in 127 Hours. So after pulling off the spectacle of London's 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, Boyle has gone to something considerably smaller, a twisty crime caper slash love triangle slash psychological thriller called Trance that would get Alfred Hitchcock's nod of approval.
Trance takes place in modern-day London with an art auctioneer named Simon (played by James McAvoy) who gets bashed in the head during a heist to steal a Goya painting worth millions. But we quickly learn that Simon was no innocent victim and had plans to steal the painting for himself, but the concussion Simon suffered has erased his memory of where he hid the painting. So when Franck, the heist leader (played by a wonderfully menacing Vincent Cassel), realizes he doesn't have the painting and can't simply torture its location out of Simon, he forces Simon to find a hypnotherapist (played by Rosario Dawson) to uncover his lost memories.
But as Elizabeth and Simon grow closer as she digs further into his unconscious, it becomes clear that Trance is about more than a heist gone wrong. And as you learn more about Simon, Franck, and Elizabeth, you'll find yourself not only wondering what genre of movie you're watching, but also who's tricking who, who the main character is, and who you should be rooting for. That's why Trance reminded me somewhat of a Hitchcock film, where the crime itself was often only a springboard for psychological examinations of criminals, their victims, and their pursuers. Trance also reminded me of Christopher Nolan's breakout film Memento, another twisty film with an unreliable narrator who can't trust his own memories.
Perhaps Trance's biggest flaw is some of its claims about hypnosis. While hypnotherapy can certainly be a powerful and effective tool, it won't get someone to doing something against their will or their own self interest. But I don't begrudge it since hypnosis in movies has always existed in its own semi-magical reality, and in the case of Trance, it's the portal to interesting themes like dealing with the past, our past selves, and what we'll do in an attempt to forge a more hopeful future, similar to the role the sci-fi memory-erasing technology in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind plays.
Trance isn't out to save the world, but it's nice to see a solid little piece of entertainment that has a fun time mashing up genres, going against conventions, and keeping you guessing while expecting the audience to keep up with its zippy pace and twisty plot. And if you need a more juvenile reason to see Trance, it has Rosario Dawson getting very, very naked which, like Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis' kiss in Black Swan, is probably going to dominate the coverage of this movie. But don't let that distract you, since Trance is an engrossing Friday or Saturday night movie and a reminder that Danny Boyle remains one of the most interesting directors out there.