In movies, as in life, there’s a time and place for artifice over art, style over substance and a good time over a thoughtful time. Director Danny Boyle first graced feature filmmaking with Shallow Grave in 1994 and has since been straddling the line between flash, character and silliness.
Sometimes his choices click—the bold colors, camera moves and screenwriter John Hodge’s characters in the aforementioned Shallow Grave; the grit and humor and awfulness of Trainspotting. Sometimes he misses so badly—A Life Less Ordinary; The Beach—it’s hard to imagine what he was trying to accomplish.
That brings us to Trance, which doesn’t work—not for a minute. That doesn’t make it bad. It would be easier to watch again than The Beach. However, Trance’s tone is off. It looks great, as do all of Boyle’s movies, and it’s well acted. Vincent Cassel is excellent as usual, and James McAvoy is right for the red herring-laden part he’s tasked with playing.
But Trance’s serpentine story hides the fact that there isn’t much story, and it doesn't hold up to scrutiny; there are just too many moments in the screenplay that have to line up perfectly for the conceit to work. The gears of contrivance really start to grind. And some moments—such as Cassel getting his head blown off and then talking perfectly clearly while we’re looking at his gushing brain—are so silly it ruins any goodwill the audience has for the scenes and story that came before.
Not that it matters, but McAvoy works for a high-profile, big-money auction house in London. In Trance’s opening moments, he explains via voiceover—which disappears as the movie thunders on (never a good sign)—how paintings on the block are protected, and the procedure to secure any works of art that may come under attack by thieves.
Indeed, thieves storm in and attempt to take a famous painting. McAvoy tries to prevent the heist, and for his trouble gets clocked in the head with the butt of Cassel’s shotgun.
Post-heist, we learn McAvoy was in on the plan, but tried to cross the thieves by stealing the painting from them during the robbery. The thump on the head has made McAvoy forget where he stashed the painting. The bad guys shake him down, decide he’s telling the truth and employ a professional hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to help uncover McAvoy’s lost memories.
Sound like a lot of bullshit? It’s not a bad idea. But then there are double-crosses, triple-crosses, dream sequences and nonsense thrown in to make us wonder what’s happening when, really, nothing is happening.
See, it doesn’t matter where the painting is or where it ends up or who put it where or what Dawson’s role is in everything—which, when it’s revealed, is senseless. Trance exists to take its audience on a ride, but it’s a ride you won’t care about and probably won’t remember taking.
Oh, you’ll think you’re enjoying it—there are enough kettle whistles buried in the music cues to make you think you’re totally on edge—but you’ll forget it, because it’s forgettable. Just like the painting’s location.
Here’s one puzzler worth remembering, though: Why is it that Rosario Dawson gets completely full-frontal nude on screen, but McAvoy and Cassel—both of whom have scenes in which they’re clearly supposed to be naked—do not? Is it an MPAA thing? A sexism thing? I don’t care to hazard a guess, but if I’m thinking about it during a screening, can the movie be all that good?
Anyway, Trance’s biggest problem is not the unequal opportunity nudity or the violence or the fake tension provided by a boiling kettle. Its problem is that it presents a story not worth telling by a director who’s capable of telling great stories.
Directed by Danny Boyle
With James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel