Trance stars James McAvoy as Simon, an art auctioneer who conspires with a group of thieves to steal the Goya painting “Witches in the Air” when it’s put up for sale to the public. However, things don’t go smoothly and the lead robber, Franck (Vincent Cassel), ends up decking Simon, leaving him bloodied and unconscious on the ground – unable to tell his accomplices where he secretly stashed the stolen piece of art, much less why he double-crossed them in the first place.
After their injured collaborator is released from hospital care, Franck and his gang attempt to extract the information using physical torture, but Simon’s fragmented memory prevents him from telling the truth. So they come up with a different solution, which involves hiring a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to coax the details from Simon through hypnotic suggestion.
Based loosely on co-screenwriter Joe Ahearne’s 2001 TV movie of the same name, Trance is an overly-preposterous, neo-Noir crime thriller that steadily unravels its central mystery throughout the first two acts, before collapsing under the weight of the third act revelations and half-cooked attempts to bring deeper significance to the proceedings. The film is often exhilarating and heart-pounding to behold thanks to direction from Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), but his technical wizardry can, at times, distract from the storytelling rather than enhance it.
Ahearne co-penned the Trance script with John Hodge, who previously collaborated with Boyle back in the 1990s on films like Trainspotting and The Beach. Working together, the trio keeps the bare-bones narrative moving straight-ahead and to the point, while also doing a decent job of establishing the laws that govern the film’s universe. However, like many a pulpy B-movie that has come before, it ultimately resorts to piling on ludicrous surprises that fail to give the story a deeper artistic purpose – and result in a contrived and silly ending.
Similarly, Boyle and his screenwriters skimp on bringing real humanity to the film’s characters; as a result, the surprises in the final act don’t have a meaningful emotional impact. McAvoy and Dawson are generally solid performers, but here they seem unable to make their characters feel like much more than empty coat racks for the writers to assign any hidden motivation or personality they please. The exception to that is Cassel, who brings vulnerability and likability to Franck, much like he did with his unscrupulous character in Black Swan.
Boyle’s direction partially redeems these screenwriting flaws, as he brings his usual (but still impressive) bag of tricks to the table, which includes flashy editing, eclectic photography choices and powerful sound effects, in addition to the pulsating score composed by Rick Smith (whose most recent collaboration with Boyle was on the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony). The filmmaking style usually compliments the story, in terms of keeping things moving and calling back to its origin in Noir (see: the motifs of multiple reflections, garish neon lights, etc.).
However, while certain stylistic decisions have a concrete thematic purpose (like the lens flare during scenes that take place in Simon’s mind), others feel more like an attempt to compensate for the thin narrative. Similarly, although the film toys with ideas about the psychology of artistic interpretation and possession – while attempting to re-appropriate Film Noir elements like the femme fatale archetype and male sexual objectification of women – it never fully commits to creating an interesting subtext, even once everything draws to a dramatic, but goofy, close in the last half-hour.
In the end, Trance amounts to a whole lot of wind and fury, but little more – and while it can be engaging as a purely sensory experience, there’s nothing on display here that other (and superior) Boyle films don’t offer. My recommendation: unless you’re a die-hard fan of the filmmaker, you’re fine waiting until this one is available to rent for home viewing.
Here is the trailer for Trance, in case you’re still debating whether or not to see it in theaters:
Trance is now playing in limited theatrical release. It is 101 minutes long and Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language.