Danny Boyle is one of those filmmakers -- like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese -- who obviously enjoys every minute of making his movies, including editing the last, most minute detail.
His films pop and jump with energy and excitement -- even when they're not actually showing something exciting. In fact, the Boyle films that feel too staid or formulaic -- things like A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach -- give off that odor of friction, as though Boyle were struggling against the bonds imposed by a studio film.
Trance, however, feels like a Boyle escapade from start to finish. He takes this tricky puzzle of a heist-gone-wrong story and uses it to tickle the viewer's imagination, to make him think he's seeing things he's not, while showing him things early on whose meaning only becomes clear later.
It's a hard film to explain without giving too much away, but here goes:
James McAvoy plays Simon, an employee at a fancy art-auction house in London, who's involved with a team of criminals led by Franck (Vincent Cassel). He's the inside man on a mid-auction robbery of a masterpiece worth millions. The takedown goes off without a hitch -- but when the crooks regroup on the other end and open up the package containing the painting, all that's left is the frame. The canvas is gone.
Simon, however, has suffered a blow to the head during the robbery that has left him no memory of what happened to the painting, though he was the last one to handle the picture in its frame. Franck decides to send Simon to a hypnotherapist, in hopes that she can delve into his unconscious and find the loot. Just for fun, the hypnotist, Elizabeth, is played by the sultry and insinuating Rosario Dawson, who seems to have an agenda of her own.
Let's leave it at that, except to say that, even as Boyle draws you further into the web of this story, he finds ways to withhold key information that comes out in the film's gripping finale. The clues are there along the way, if you know what you're looking for. Like any good illusionist, Boyle understands that misdirection is a big part of the gag.
He has excellent helpers to pull off this trick and utilizes every gimmick available to him. Most of all, he has a strong and sympathetic cast -- with the exception of the steely (but ultimately semi-likable) Cassel, whose hawkish profile seems like a threat in and of itself. McAvoy is an actor capable of evincing moral complication, strength and weakness at the same time. He peels away layers -- sometimes willingly, sometimes with great effort -- as this cornered young man slowly comes into view.
Dawson is equally adept at creating an opaque surface which others read as they will. She never tips her hand -- and she's good enough to convince us of the same things she's trying to convey to Simon.
With its sometimes stroboscopic editing and the strenuous cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle (who won an Oscar for Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire), Trance is hypnotic without being in any way somnolent. It's not hard to fall under its spell -- and sleep will be the last thing on your mind.
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