Danny Boyle likes to get into his characters’ heads, often delving into the essence of what makes a character tick. Think of Renton’s drug-fuelled swim inTrainspotting or Leonardo DiCaprio’s computer game escapism in The Beachand, of course, James Franco’s flights of fancy while trapped beneath that rock in 127 Hours. Trance marks a shift for Boyle though, his previous mind-toying ways were portals into his characters motives, Trance goes out of its way to do quite the opposite, instead keeping us at arms length until the hard-hitting climax.
Based on Joe Ahearne’s TV movie, Trance finds art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) embroiled in a heist led by violent criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel). During the robbery the painting in question, Goya’s Witches In The Air, goes missing, and Simon’s the only person who knows its whereabouts. Unfortunately, Simon wakes up with amnesia after getting hit on the head and when pulling his nails out fails to refresh his memory, Franck realises Simon has genuinely forgotten where he hid the painting. So he enlists hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to rummage through Simon’s noggin in the hope of locating the loot.
As is to be expected of a film dipping in and out of the minds of numerous characters, Trance is frequently a visual delight. Boyle using a primary colour pallete to both disorientate and blind us. From the deep reds of Frank’s nightclub hideout to the cool blues of Simon’s apartment, Trance is often akin to looking at one of those colour-testing screens on a television. We’re intentionally kept on the periphery of events, asked to engage with the character development while trying to unravel the spider web of a story.
Utilising a typically eclectic soundtrack that is reminiscent of Boyle’s best work in films like Trainspotting and The Beach, Trance is often immersive. And yet, it never quite settles. So absorbed is the script (by regular Boyle cohort John Hodge) with the mystery that the characters soon become lost in all the colour and skewed camera angles. Add to this moments where characters wake from apparent dreams where it’s unclear whose head we’re in and Trance often becomes too self-indulgent of its own good. Unlike say Inception, where clear lines were drawn, Trance feels less ambitious but more convoluted. Add to this an impetus placed on crotch-shots (two of them camera originated the other simply cringe-inducing for male audience members) and you wonder if Boyle has got lost in the woods.
Thankfully the ending does go some way to rectifying much of this. The revelations coming thick and fast, never letting you forget the trail of breadcrumbs that have led us to this point.
McAvoy, using his silky, native Scottish accent, is on brilliant form. His opening, to-camera introduction is something of a highlight while he is able to go from scared to confused to angry in a matter of seconds without it ever feeling forced. Cassel, who took the role of Franck after Michael Fassbender had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict, feels slightly miscast. For the most part his feral villainy works well early on but as the film twists and turns and the characters become more ambiguous, he’s left in a bad guy role that doesn’t quite fit. Dawson meanwhile should be planting the most intrigue in your mind but, more often than not, her one-note performance gets lost amid the more powerful screen presences around her.
A complex narrative that is often more sticky than is necessary, Trance doesn’t hypnotise but might rattle the brain for a fleeting moment.