If there’s any film that can be directly compared to Danny Boyle’s Trance, it would have to be Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Both films take elements from heist and noir genres and introduce a cerebral twist that takes audiences into the complexities of the human mind. Both films are visually fascinating and stacked with great performances orchestrated by brilliant filmmakers at the top of their game. But Boyle’s film ultimately falls short when it comes to executing those bigger ideas.
The story begins as Simon (James McAvoy), an art curator at an auction house, joins up with a group of criminals led by a man named Franck (Vincent Cassel) to steal Francisco Goya's "Witches In The Air.” The plan goes wrong, however, when Simon stashes the painting, suffers a head injury, then forgets where he put it. Without options, the thieves turn to Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist who they hope can recover the art piece without getting wise to the reality of the situation.
Boyle is unquestionably one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and his visceral, intense style is on full display in Trance. While the film never reaches the intensity level of the arm cutting in 127 Hours, the director still make audiences squirm in their seats with sequences involving fingernails getting pulled out and characters buried alive. The dream states of the hypnosis also opens the doors to some incredible visuals, as we travel into the deep recesses of Simon’s mind and discovers what frightens, excites, and causes peace within him, from the violence and tension of a gunfight to extreme serenity of a drive through a meadow.
Forming the interesting ego, superego and id triumvirate at the story's center, McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel are stellar as Simon, Elizabeth and Franck. The mixed international backgrounds lends an interesting dynamic, as you can actually sense that all three are coming into the story from a very different place, but each actor also makes their characters so interesting and flavors them with subtlety that you could imagine the entire story being told from their singular perspective. Cassel successfully makes Franck both incredibly dangerous and accessible as the story moves forward - constantly presenting a threat to Simon while never being trapped as a one-note villain – and McAvoy makes for an impressive moving target, making the audience navigate his complex and interesting character along with the plot. But it’s Dawson who winds up being the film’s greatest asset, playing the victim caught up in the criminals’ plot while also always having a secret strength that keeps her ahead of her associates. It’s the best performance we’ve seen from her yet.
When dealing with subject matter as interesting and cerebral as hypnosis, with a cast like this and a director like Boyle involved, you expect the script to go the extra mile – which this one fails to really do. Given the genre you can’t help but walk into the movie with an expectation of multiple twists and turns that keep you guessing about what’s actually happening at every moment, and while Trance does have them, they’re not as sharp, clever or deep as one would hope from a filmmaker as constantly impressive as Boyle. It’s hard to take too much credit away from Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s screenplay, as it provides a solid base from which the director can work, but walking out of the theater you can’t help but wish it was more than that.
If it were any other director at the helm of Trance it would be a more impressive film, but instead it's one of Boyle’s more mediocre efforts. It’s a worthwhile ride for the performances and the director’s style, but those anticipating something on the level of the filmmaker’s most brilliant work will do themselves a favor by expecting a simple, cool heist noir.