Trance is the slick new crime thriller from Danny Boyle, and though the director is a recent Oscar-winner for Slumdog Millionaire, Trance harkens much more to his first movie, Shallow Grave. Though almost all of his movies are about a group of interlocked people contending with greed, he also has a subset about the repulsive things some of them will do for their greed, as in Trainspotting.
Trance, however, is set in a trendy echelon of London, and centers on the theft of a Goya painting, Witches in the Air, which is being auctioned for more than $25 million. As the gavel falls, Simon (James McAvoy), a fine-art employee, steals it. He steals it for a sophisticated gangster named Franck (Vincent Cassell), but before he can hand it over, Simon suffers a blow to the head and can’t remember where he stashed it. This makes Franck very antsy, and he has Simon tortured. When that doesn’t jog his memory, Simon is sent to a hypnotherapist to unblock his memory. Simon and the therapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), have an immediate connection, and though Simon is unusually suggestible, this connection gets in the way of his memory retrieval. That brings the wily Franck dangerously close to both therapist and patient.
Using hypnosis to propel a psychological thriller is inspired, and Dawson is flawless as a clinically cool uptick on the classic femme fatale. Her acuity, and the process of hypnosis itself, dissolves the psychological boundaries between the victim—Simon—and the oppressors—Franck and his two henchmen—with unnerving efficiency, and then the roles are reversed: Maybe it’s Franck who is the victim? Enriching this twisty heist is how Simon’s psyche has been shaped by the fine art that is his work, especially that of Goya, the first modernist and a spine-shivering fantasist. (Though The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is never mentioned, it’s a nifty allegory for Elizabeth’s manipulative skill with the power of suggestion.)
The action is as inventive and stylish as in any other Boyle film, and there is a gripping sequence of a man trapped in a submerged car that is both highly realistic and subtly hallucinatory. But that comes after the film piles on so many reversals of motivation and twists of incident that it becomes meaningless (though never boring). Screenwriter Joe Ahearn, the pen behind The Beach, Boyle’s worst film, may have been aiming for a hall-of-memory-mirrors mind-blow similar to Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but Trance is not in the same league (though if you should notice that the Witches are actually warlocks, that makes the plot more clever.)
The failing, as it almost always is in thrillers this ambitious, is that after bending reality to the breaking point, the story has nowhere to go. So despite all the maneuvers, evasions, and alluring red herrings, it’s really the audience that’s being ripped off.