After the awards magnets Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, and the triumphant majesty of his esoteric Olympic Opening Ceremony, Danny Boyle wants to get rid of the “national treasure” and the tag of prestige that he has rightly earned by getting his hands grubby again. Trance is an exercise in doing exactly that; taking him right back to the formative days of Shallow Grave, removing the pretence and striving only to make an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride which presents a rewarding if flawed final result.
Boyle is nothing if unpredictable and eclectic, he will turn his hand to almost any genre and appears to have paced his career in tackling a new genre and a new form with each film, only crucially putting his own spin on it and occasionally colliding two genres together. Trance continues the genre bending trait that has defined his career, although in an altogether more complex and slippery way. Much in the same way as Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, Trance tricks you into thinking you’re seeing one film but as the plot unfolds you realise you are watching another film entirely.
Without wanting to give too much of the intricate, and at times frankly incomprehensible plot away, Trance starts out with a heist at an art auction, where Simon (James McAvoy) is working as an inside man for a group of gangsters, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), to swipe a £25,000,000 Goya painting. However, all goes wrong when it is revealed that the group have only retrieved an empty frame with the painting mysteriously missing and Simon, who may or may not have enacted a double cross, gets in a bust up with Franck and suffers a blow to the head causing amnesia.
With his brain battered, Simon enlists the help of Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist to unlock his forgotten memory of the heist with the hope of uncovering the location of the painting. From here Trance goes from being what appears to be a rather conventional mystery/thriller into something a lot more psychedelic and experimental as Elizabeth delves deeper into Simon’s mind and the film’s plot contorts and subverts with scenes that drift between dream & reality, conscious & subconscious. It becomes increasingly clear that we can’t trust everything we’re seeing as the line between reality and dream is blurred and with a pace so unforgiving, it becomes increasingly confusing.
As Trance descends into its various twists and turns it does get lost, and there are moments where you aren’t exactly sure what is going on. In fact, by the end of the film you aren’t even entirely sure how some of the events tie in to the plot. There’s a level of deception going on in the film too that will make some people lose their interest as well as the emotional investment they place in the characters. Trance embodies a callousness and coldness that hasn’t really been a part of Boyle’s work since Shallow Grave and after the life affirming redemptive work, which has put him truly at the fore front of his craft, this feels more like a slap in the face with the central message that human nature is essentially corrupted and flawed.
There is a glossy and (for lack of a better word) Hollywood idea, that in order for a movie to work you have to have at least one character who is likeable/someone to root for. It seems that this notion is perhaps one of the more challenging in cinema. Considering actors and characters are the main conduit through which most audiences engage with in the film, I can understand why some people may find it difficult to embrace a film where we don’t have a protagonist to identify with. On the other hand, for me and some others, this idea of characters being nearly wholly unlikeable is an interesting, engaging one. Trance actually goes someway to subvert those theories of narrative heroes and villains in ways which are at first frustrating and a bit out of left field but on reflection are an admirable attempt by the filmmakers to challenge their audience.
It’s somewhat of a shame that Trance doesn’t have much depth beyond that subversion of expectation and in the end it has nothing much to say. You go through a lot to not be given very much. However, I think I can forgive Boyle (after three works of immeasurable prestige and worthiness), for getting his hands dirty in the more exploitation genre world again, especially when the exploitation is as well made as this.
It goes without saying that as a Danny Boyle film it looks absolutely stunning. Like his peers Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher, Boyle has pioneered (alongside his brilliant cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) the use of digital photography in feature filmmaking, resulting in a look that is innovative, dynamic and indelibly cinematic.
Trance was originally intended to be set in Manhattan, a more inherently cinematic city, but the shift hasn’t harmed the film and Boyle manages to bring the hyper modern, kinetic milieu of New York to London in a way that makes the film look like a big budget Hollywood production despite the fact it was shot on a budget of around $20 million. His use of light and angles is simple but incredibly effective in enhancing the tone. On top of that you have the pounding, brilliant soundtrack by Boyle’s long time collaborator Rick Smith of Underworld which goes to some way to ramping up the film’s bombastic pace.
The central trio of performances: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson, are all terrific. Admittedly, the role of Franck isn’t much of a stretch for Cassel. He’s again playing the violent, unpredictable yet suave and alluring gangster, something that he has pioneered in other films, but he’s pretty great at it. It is the performances of McAvoy and Dawson that are far more revelatory, both stepping up to the mark and producing career best work. Both actors dive head first into the compelling and physically challenging material with aplomb but more crucially they manage to ride the shifts in character motivation quite brilliantly.
McAvoy has given small signs that he could do this kind of morally ambiguous work in the past but has never really delivered on it, now he’s been given the opportunity to do it and it pays off remarkably well. This is a role he can be incredibly proud of. But the real revelation here is Dawson. She has never had a role as complex and as layered as this before and it proves that when she is given decent writing and a decent character to work with, she can actually produce some really good work. If there is any emotional depth to be found in the film, it comes solely from her and the character of Elizabeth.
In the end, Trance may not add up to very much, but there is so much to admire, respect and revel in with it. Boyle’s craft is absolutely impeccable and the lead trio produce some very fine performances. This is not one of the defining films of Boyle’s canon, nor is it an important work, but one feels that after five years of doing nothing but prove his importance on the stage, the once maverick of British cinema should be allowed to kick back and have fun again.