Sunday, April 14, 2013

Love: Trance

Prior to directing Trance, the last time a Danny Boyle film felt like a Danny Boyle film was: A. Slumdog Millionaire B. 127 Hours  C. Sunshine  D. None of the above.  Quick, what's your final answer?  If you're me, the only answer is D.  Boyle is a director who at his best provides his films with a striking, visceral kinetic energy and who, at his worst, channels his need for cuts and edits and pop music into a student film-style mess.  In his recent work we see the strongest evidence of his aesthetic in scenes relying on booming rhythms and constant motion; jumping trains, cycling rapidly across a desert. These are the moments Boyle excels at bringing to life, and he transforms straight narrative into something vibrant, often bloody. Give him a hint of reckless endangerment, a touch of decrepitude, an altered state, and a story coated in postmodern sleaze, and he's set to go.  Of course, this is the Danny Boyle that I want to see.  I don't want a film from the Boyle who's advertised with mentions of the aforementioned films. I want a film from the Boyle who made Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, and 28 Days Later.  A reality-bending thriller like Trance?  Exactly the thing.
Trance is the type of film you shouldn't know too much about before watching, so please excuse the vague tiptoeing I'll be doing here.  Loosely, the film is a thriller constructed around the flexibility of memory and the untapped potential of hypnosis. James McAvoy stars as Simon, an art auctioneer who finds himself involved with a group of dangerous criminals anxious to recover a targeted missing painting. The work is Francisco Goya's curious Witches in the Air, a piece that depicts a man in the midst of being spirited away (or torn apart) by a gaggle of male witches.  There's more to it than that, of course, but the subject matter seems quite relevant to Simon's plight.  Torn from his seemingly average life, Simon finds himself tortured and carted around by the criminals searching for the painting.  He was the inside man. He was supposed to make things easy.  Instead, the Goya disappeared. They believe he knows where it is, but a nasty blow to the head has left him with no access to those memories.  Head honcho Franck (Vincent Cassel) decides to wire Simon and send him for hypnotherapy sessions in a last, desperate bid.  Simon sits in Elizabeth Lamb's (Rosario Dawson) office and falls under her gentle spell, the boys wait outside, ready to pounce. From there, the film transforms from your average heist thriller to a rich, dizzying  unraveling of our accepted reality.   
That is, of course, all I dare tell you, but consider this: Trance is a sort of flashy, pop noir done up with glass surfaces and color-blocked rooms instead of filtered through the shadows. As such, it's a lot of style and a lot of rhetorical posturing without a tremendous amount of actual substance.  Or, to interpret that another way, it's sort of a high class B-movie. Though it's gussied up with a lot of mind-bending concepts, the purpose of Trance is, simply, to entertain and surprise in rapidly changing, spiraling, and often pulpy ways.  Held under a microscope, its plot is filled with small holes, intersections, and curious loops. We are meant to trust that Simon is as suggestible as Elizabeth claims he is, and to believe in the timeline laid out before us without question. What we may not be sure about as we watch, however, is whether Boyle's final product is clever or a touch messy.  It's hard to tell.  The good thing is, of course, that it's also tough to care. Trance doesn't stop. Just when it seems like it's about to hit a wall, it brakes, jerks, spins rapidly away from that possible outcome.
The characters grow in surprising ways, aided by the actors' (McAvoy, Cassel, Dawson) understated abilities to play up initial genre archetypes and, therefore, ease us into something other than the dizzy free fall we're about to enter.  In that respect, Trance reminded me quite a bit of another thriller released this year: Side Effects. Both work within certain modes while actively pushing against expectations, and each yields a sort of guilty pleasure level result aided by bouts of weird, lurid sex and violence.  Though neither is the type of film a director would roll out come awards season, each is smart and satisfying if only because it seeks to frustrate some unwritten cliche.  Trance announces, for me, a return to form for Danny Boyle.  It's risky, raw, colorful, and fractured; imperfect, but damn entertaining. 


  1. Great review! Can't wait to watch this!

    1. Lots of varied opinions out there. Definitely a different take on the old 'heist' thriller, at least!


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