When I saw the trailer for tonight’s movie, I first thought that it looked like Inception by way of Danny Boyle. My second thought was “shut up and take my money.”
Loosely based on a British made-for-TV movie (written and directed by Joe Ahearne, here credited as a writer), Trance tells the story of a high-end auctioneer named Simon (James McAvoy). He’s a nebbish little nonentity who’s bullied into helping steal Goya’s “Witches in the Air,” a famous piece of art worth upwards of 27 million euros. But then, partway through the heist, things go wrong.
For unknown reasons, Simon deviates from the plan and attacks his boss (Franck, played by Vincent Cassel) as if to guard the painting. Franck counter-attacks with a devastating blow to the head before escaping with the painting. Or rather, he escapes with the frame.
The painting has gone missing, and Simon is the only possible reason why. Unfortunately, due to his head wound, Simon claims to have no memory of what he did with the loot. Whether or not that’s actually true, Franck plays along for the purpose of getting his hard-earned artwork as quickly as possible. Additionally, Simon is quite intent on moving past this with all of his fingers and toes still intact.
Together, they turn to a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). Not only does she prove herself remarkably adept at getting into Simon’s head, but she also quickly deduces her part in all the criminal activity going on. And she doesn’t back out. In fact, she wheedles her way into being made an equal part of the team, ostensibly to have an easier time at getting into Simon’s head by gaining his respect.
What follows is a very elaborate power play between these three individuals. On one end is Simon, who holds the secret of where the painting is and may actually be lying about his amnesia toward his own ends. On the opposite end is Franck, a violent and greedy man whose temper and patience grow ever more thin.
In between them is Elizabeth, quite possibly the most fascinating character in this picture. She wastes absolutely no time in persuading Franck to make a variety of concessions, ostensibly so that she can lure Simon into a deeper and more suggestible state. Of course, it helps that Elizabeth is a stone-cold fox who uses her sexuality in some decidedly R-rated ways.
She’s got both men wrapped around her finger, but her endgame and her motivations are never entirely clear. Moreover, Franck and Simon both know that they’re under her spell, and there’s always the question of what they’re going to do about it.
Of course, Simon is such a spineless and unfortunate guy that he welcomes the change in leadership. In fact, he seems quite smitten with Elizabeth. Franck, on the other hand, is very much a type-A guy whose acceptance is more grudging. It’s never exactly clear if he wants to kill Elizabeth, fuck her, or both. Franck’s arc is all about his gradual loss of control, which might not have been very interesting if it wasn’t for Cassel’s astronomical screen presence.
With all of that said, this is unquestionably Simon’s movie. Because hypnosis can only work if the patient is comfortable and relaxed, the whole story is about the process of peeling away Simon’s fears and insecurities until that deeply repressed memory can be accessed. Unfortunately, there’s no telling what else is hiding in the dark corners of his psyche. As forgotten memories and terrible secrets start boiling to the surface, Simon starts developing from a cowardly zero into something else entirely. The narrative changes directions in some startling ways at every step of Simon’s development, especially when his revelations collide with the ulterior motives of Elizabeth and Franck.
Because so much of the premise revolves around Simon’s mind, you might expect this to be one of those movies that tinkers with reality, such that it’s not always clear what’s actually happening and what isn’t. One very notable sequence aside, the picture is quite clear on what’s happening in reality and what’s limited to Simon’s mind. It does have a neat little ambiguous ending, though it’s ambiguous for different reasons entirely.
No, Boyle prefers to screw with the minds of his audience by way of editing. He plays around with the timeline a lot in this movie, often portraying events out of sequence. Sometimes, a clip will be presented as one thing, only to appear as something totally different when placed in the proper context. Boyle uses a lot of dark and seemingly random imagery to drop clues at convenient times, but he gets away with it because of the film’s dreamlike presentation.
Purely from a technical standpoint, this film is a marvel. The camera movements are wonderful, the editing is a work of demented genius, and the colors on display are jaw-dropping. Best of all, the score is absolutely breathtaking from start to finish. Rick Smith (of a British electronic music group called Underworld) composed a mesmerizing score that expertly walks the line between conventional and techno music. The result is a score that constantly underlines the action onscreen, raising the emotional stakes while keeping that dreamlike feel. Dazzling stuff.
Unfortunately, there are times when Boyle takes this ethereal feel a little too far. Right off the bat, for example, Simon treats us to a narration about his job. All well and good, except that Simon delivers this narration by speaking directly into the camera. This is never given any context. He never speaks to the camera at any point since, and we have no reason to believe that this is any kind of dream or hypnotherapy session. In terms of establishing a surreal mood, it works great. In terms of coherent plotting, it makes no sense at all.
Far worse, this is a film that tries to blend the subgenres of heist film, psychological thriller, and post-modern reality play. All three styles are notoriously bad with regards to plot holes, and this film is no exception. Not only is this plot sprawling, but it’s constantly revising itself as we learn more about the characters, their motivations, and what actually happened during the heist.
To be clear, the pieces are all laid out and presented in a way that’s actually rather coherent. Watching the film, I could honestly do a halfway decent job of following how one plot point built toward the next. Unfortunately, that’s mostly because the film played so liberally with time. After the movie, when I tried to sort the pieces in chronological order, I couldn’t do it in any way that made sense.
By a similar token, all the character shifts prove to be a double-edged sword. I was always kept on my toes as the characters switched allegiances, though they may have switched a couple of times too many. By the end, there were too many occasions when I was supposed to cheer for a character I’d rooted against up to that point (or vice versa), but I had emotionally invested too much in a character’s outcome for a last-minute face-turn to change my mind. The actors all try their darnedest to sell it — and that counts for a lot, considering how much talent is on the screen — but it still doesn’t quite work.
Moving on to a lesser problem, we have the side characters. To be specific, there really aren’t any. The entire film revolves around the main trio of Simon, Franck, and Elizabeth. Aside from them, the cast ranges from bland to non-existent. Franck’s henchmen are easily the best case in point: All three of them are as forgettable as they are interchangeable. The only real standout in the secondary cast is Tuppence Middleton, who plays an anonymous beauty. She plays a character with some fascinating significance to Simon’s mind, for reasons I won’t discuss here.
As a screenplay, Trance falls just short of its own admirably lofty goals. It’s lucky, then, that this screenplay was shepherded by one of the most ambitious, talented, and ballsy directors currently working. Through dazzling visuals, breakneck pacing, a phenomenal score, and a leading cast that’s loaded with talent, Boyle keeps the film entertaining and surprising even as the plot falters.
The movie was such a novel and thrilling phantasmagoria that I can gladly recommend giving it a watch. Just don’t look too closely or you’ll see how frail the stitches are.