A quick comment before I get into the review proper:
I saw Trance on Monday, April 15 in Boston, just a few days ago. The reason I was able to see it on a Monday was due to this particular Monday being Patriot's Day, also known as Marathon Monday, which meant my office was closed for the holiday. By now, we all know what Marathon Monday is going to mean to the city and the people of Boston moving forward after what happened at the marathon. I live just a bit outside the city in Allston, and was not in the vicinity of the bombs that went off at the finish line in Back Bay. I lucked out in my own way, as I nearly could have been much closer to the area than I was. Trance is currently playing in three theaters in the area, Kendall Square Cinemas (or whatever it's called now) in Cambridge, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, and the AMC/Loews Boston Common downtown. I love the theater at the Common. It's big and beautiful and full of all sorts of classic film quotes and movie posters covering the walls and the ceiling. Nothing makes me happier than walking those halls on my way to the theater. Given the chance, I almost always will choose to see films at the Common over Coolidge Corner, even though I can walk to the Coolidge in about 15 minutes, and the Common is either a 75-80 minute walk or a T ride away.
On Monday, I was planning to catch an early screening at the Common and then walk back to my apartment, either along the marathon route on Boylston Street or along Newbury Street or Commonwealth Avenue, both of which run adjacent to Boylston. I didn't end of doing that, deciding instead to avoid the crowds and the craziness of the scene downtown and just watch the film at Coolidge. I even got there a bit too early (even for me) and got to watch the marathon for five or six minutes at the junction of Harvard Street and Beacon Street in Brookline. I'm not sure if I would have actually been in the area of the attack had I gone to the show at the Common. But it would have been far too close for comfort. I can't even imagine what the people in that area have been through. I was just there at that exact spot on Boylston Street this past Saturday, dropping off some DVDs at the Boston Public Library, directly across the street from where the first bomb detonated. The grandstand and the finish line were already in place, with those barricades we've all seen torn down by the first responders trying to get to the victims. It's one of my favorite places in the city. I don't expect that to change; the will is too powerful to simply give in to such acts. But luckily, I am safe and was comfortably in my apartment when event occurred. Just because of one simple little decision of where I went to watch a movie. Life's funny that way sometimes.
Okay, on to the review.
* * * * *
Danny Boyle has a goal in mind with Trance, his first motion picture since 2010's 127 Hours. The story concerns a young, dashing art thief (is there any other kind in the world of celluloid?) who, when hit in the head during his escape, cannot remember where he stashed the 25+ million dollar painting he ran off with. His gang of stereotypically unseemly criminal types who put together the heist hires a hypnotherapist to try and jar those memories loose and reveal the location of the loot. Once she figures out there is something else going on, she forces her way into a piece of the action, though all is not quite what it seems. James McAvoy is our lead, and is joined by Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel, as the therapist and leader of the gang, respectively.
Things begin in a relatively benign fashion, as a Simon (McAvoy) voice over explains how difficult robbing an auction house of a priceless piece of art is while at the same time effortlessly robbing this particular auction house of a priceless piece of art. It's the same kind of montage we've seen in every flashy heist since Ocean's 11, with the standard Danny Boyle style at play, feeling like a stylish music video, all quick cuts, camera tricks and fancy accents. As things move on, the visual style heightens and the plot begins to fragment. The central conceit involves a constantly shifting sense of reality that attempts to disorient the viewer by mixing actual reality in with hypnotically suggested dreams. It's easy enough to follow structurally; there never is too much of a question about what is real and what is the product of hypnosis thanks to Boyle's sure hand. The plot itself is twisty, chock full of double crosses and triple crosses, identity changes and surprises. Conceptually and structurally, the plot is designed to reflect Simon's fragmented memories, making us unsure of what is actually happening in real life and who these people are, let alone whether what he is remembering is actually true or purely the product of hypnotic suggestion. Elizabeth (Dawson) makes a pointed statement early on about how 5% of the population is sensitive to hypnotic suggestion, and you know at that point that nothing you are seeing can be trusted as an accurate depiction of real world actions. The final act disappears entirely down the rabbit hole, constantly assaulting the senses with twists and turns, shifting the plotting into overdrive in order to reach some consensus about not just the story, but the nature of reality in a world where it cannot be trusted.
Our three principal actors all handle their roles capably, which can't be easy considering the labyrinthine nature of the script both due to its plotting and its character development. McAvoy has the unenviable task of playing a partial amnesiac as both a recent blank slate and a person with memories and motivations that determine his character, playing into how things resolve in the third act. Everyone's got something else going on, except Vincent Cassel's Franck, the man who we at least presume at the onset of the story to be the villain. Simon is acting on multiple levels whether he realizes it or not, and Elizabeth has got all kinds of shadiness in her character that is evident from go, and yet Franck is refreshingly straightforward in its actions and motivations. All three actors are excellent here, especially Dawson, who has so much she needs to do in order to make her character believable. The way she interacts with each member of the gang is subtle in its bald manipulations, which is fascinating to see play out on the screen. McAvoy and Cassel continue to put out solid work, but this film is all Dawson's, and she is ready for the task.
Danny Boyle has an odd filmography to his name. No one denies that he is a gifted visual stylist with a flair for camera angles and using editing and shot composition to create a consistent mood that reinforces the themes of his films. It has also become clear over the years that Mr. Boyle, for all of his gifts, cannot save a subpar script. Some of this is opinion, of course, but it's difficult to deny that many of his films have a tendency to go off the rails at some point, often in the third act. For every Trainspotting (a film I personally don't identify with, though I understand the appeal), 28 Days Later or 127 Hours, we are subjected to dreck like A Life Less Ordinary or The Beach, or inconsistency with little flashes of brilliance like Slumdog Millionaire, or (worst of all) Sunshine, a film that features a staggeringly brilliant first two acts that implodes into a staggeringly off base climax and denouement that robs the film of any resonance it had built up. What all of Boyle's misfires have in common is the tendency for their problems to originate in the script, whether due to weak dialogue, plotting contrivances or nonsensical story and tonal turns. All of these films are excellently directed, edited and shot, but so many of them leave the viewer unsatisfied in some way.
With this in mind, where does Trance fall? Does it stick the landing like 28 Days Later or falter like Sunshine? Unfortunately, by its end, Trance is on the Sunshine side of Boyle's oeuvre. Trance takes some leaps in its final act that not only don't feel earned, but also seem to play with the audience in a way that is untoward. Any empathy we feel for Simon and Elizabeth is robbed from us by a few scenes during the film's climax, leaving the whole thing feeling...unseemly in a way that does not serve the story, nor does it feel natural considering the progression of the characters up to that point in the plot. These events (which are pretty massive spoilers, hence my vagary) come off as cheap and manipulative, like the writers and director were playing a trick on the audience, a twist that exists solely for the purposes of having a twist, which is the worst reason to put a twist in your script. It may not be as much of an extreme left turn/slap in the face as the third act of Sunshine, but it's also not remotely satisfying.
It's a shame. I want to like Danny Boyle. I even do sometimes. His ingenuity as a director is undeniable. It's just frustrating that, more often than not, his choices for scripts do not hold up to his prodigious talent. Trance is no different, and that makes me sad.