(This review was originally published on April 11, 2013 at Reel Film News)
I walked away from “Trance” knowing that I’d need to mull it over for a while. A few days later, I hadn’t formed anything more concise than my initial gut reaction, which might be summed up as “disturbed and fascinated.” I tend to throw the word “intense” around a lot, but after seeing this movie, I might be a little more selective.
Danny Boyle’s newest film is a psychological puzzle. It’s smart and challenging but no less of a bludgeon to the senses than his “Trainspotting” or “28 Days Later”. It’s also a bit confusing. If not his most cerebral and ambitious work, it might seem that way after 2010‘s “127 Hours”, which was a notable departure from his typical overload of plot diversions and violence. While “Trance” never quite finds a pace because it’s way too busy trying to throw us off the scent of its impending revelation(s), it is still wildly creative in doing so. Its constant state of flux is likely to leave you dizzy.
James McAvoy plays Simon, a high-level art auctioneer who steals a multi-million dollar painting for a group of criminals led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) for reasons that are made clear later on in the film. In his attempt to double-cross them, Simon sustains a blow from the butt of Franck’s shotgun which renders him unconscious. Being interrogated and tortured for its whereabouts, he claims he can’t remember where he hid it.
When it becomes apparent that Simon’s amnesia is real, Franck wires him up with a microphone and sends him to Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a highly regarded hypnotherapist who he’s hoping can extract the information from Simon’s subconscious.
In typical Boyle fashion, “Trance” is all about the unexpected. As Elizabeth immediately discovers that Simon is being monitored, she demands to get in on the action. The resulting story is full of twists, unraveling almost as quickly as it develops, as the pieces of the puzzle come together, only to show us that the puzzle was just a decoy.
McAvoy gives the most complex, exhausting performance on his résumé, and Dawson is wickedly unpredictable, reflecting Simon’s skewed perception of her through a prism of delusion and fragmented memory. Maybe the biggest surprise in the development of the characters is the depth that Cassel brings to Franck, a bad guy who experiences almost as much mental turmoil as Simon. There’s a looming sense of stress, urgency and uncertainty between the characters, a paranoia that is inherent in Boyle’s frenetic direction (along with some very graphic, sometimes surreal violence). Psychologically, it feels like being put on several medications at one time and trying to figure out which one is the placebo. It often feels like too much at once.
Like the Goya painting that drives the plot, this film, written by Joe Ahearne and “Trainspotting”’s John Hodge, leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and will work your mind over in the process. Appropriately named both for its premise and its potential effect on the audience, “Trance” approaches such levels of abstraction that it risks undermining its purpose as a psychological thriller, only to bring us back into Boyle’s cacophony of a final act.