Danny Boyle is one of those directors that can be both brilliant and frustrating. He knows how to tell a story, but sometimes over stylizes those stories with narrative gimmicks and camera trickery. It’s almost as if he’s both confident and unsure of himself, like he loses faith in the story he’s telling and ups the style or takes detours that don’t fit. His most overrated film, “127 Hours,” is proof of this. With ridiculous ghostly visions of Scooby-Doo and long tracking shots that took the viewer out of the terrifying claustrophobic atmosphere its main character was stuck in, Boyle lost much of what made the rest of his movie so grueling. He made similar mistakes with the video game scene from “The Beach” (though it could be argued that movie was beyond repair anyway) and the ending of “Sunshine” that turned a wonderful, thought provoking science fiction movie into a glorified slasher film. Unfortunately, he does it once again with “Trance,” though to a lesser extent. Boyle mixes assured direction and a steady hand with a number of questionable decisions—the abundance of purposeless canted camera angles feel even more so when they’re simple establishing shots—and it’s frustrating to watch. It’s still worth seeing if for no other reason than for James McAvoy’s committed performance, but it’s no master work.
McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer who auctions beautiful paintings worth millions of pounds to the highest bidder. Although he’s been told that no piece of art is worth a human life, there’s nevertheless a procedure in place in case of an attempted robbery. In the commotion, he’s to grab the painting, enclose it in a zip-up bag and drop it down a safety chute to a place where nobody will be able to access it. One night, this procedure becomes practice when a group of armed gunmen, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), show up to steal the most precious painting up for bid. Right before dropping it down the chute, Simon is caught and gives up the bag, but not before getting cold cocked in the head with Franck’s shotgun. This hit causes Simon to lose his memory, which is a bad thing because it turns out that somewhere along the line, he made the old switcheroo. The bag is completely empty. Later, after Simon is released from the hospital, the thieves catch up to him and, with the help of hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), attempt to siphon its whereabouts out of his brain.
Essentially, “Trance” is “Memento” meets “Inception.” It revolves around a man trying to recover his memories while also taking place in a dream state, one that blurs the line between reality and illusion, to the point where it tricks the viewer, unaware at any given time if what they’re watching is taking place in the real world or within someone’s mind. It’s not a bad concept, though it’s perhaps less interesting in a post “Inception” world that already tackled the idea in a better, more meaningful and more complex way.
The one thing that will be hard to accept, especially for the skeptics among us, is its story that revolves around the pseudoscientific nonsense that is hypnotherapy. It’s not the fact that it’s there, or even that it plays a major role in the story, but rather that it’s portrayed in such a matter-of-fact way. It never questions its authenticity and instead treats it as a real and true practice, which of course it isn’t. In a movie like “Inception,” such a practice would be okay because it takes place in a strict science fiction universe. Recapturing lost memories the way Guy Pearce did in “Memento” is okay as well because it at least makes sense and is grounded in some sort of reality. “Trance” feels like it couldn’t come up with a realistic way to explore the same idea, so it included science fiction elements in a story that is anything but science fiction, hoping the audience will fail to notice.
Yet one can’t deny that as silly as it is and as desperate to be unique as it sometimes feels, “Trance” works. McAvoy, as usual for the talented actor, gives a marvelous performance that gradually changes as we learn more and more about his character. By the time the end rolls around and the twist is revealed, things that didn’t make sense before suddenly do and our perception of him has completely changed. Unfortunately, that twist still revolves around the hard-to-take-seriously hypnotherapy the film uses as its crutch.
Frankly, Boyle is at his best when he keeps it simple, his best and easily most enchanting movie being the underseen “Millions.” Here, he has a story that is so elaborate, he can’t seem to keep pace and tries to cover it up with technical flash. It’s one of those rare movies that hooks you without ever providing the suspension of disbelief one would need to truly invest in it. You know full well while watching that it’s a tad rough and its attempt to legitimize hypnotherapy is total nonsense, but you don’t care. “Trance” won’t blow you away and if you’re looking for movies that tackle similar themes, you’re better off watching those aforementioned Christopher Nolan films, but it’s serviceable nonetheless.
Trance receives 3/5