I suspect how you feel about Danny Boyle’s new film, Trance, will depend a good deal on how you feel about his first movie, Shallow Grave (1994). Both films have three main characters, none of whom are likable — the best you can say is that they’re fascinatingly unlikable. Both films are crime thrillers. And both are either style over substance, or style as substance affairs — depending on how you feel about films that can be called style-heavy. There are other similarities including a nod to A Clockwork Orange with injured James McAvoy being photographed in his hospital bed alongside his PR-driven boss and a savvy pop soundtrack. It must be said that Trance‘s convoluted plot makes Shallow Grave seem remarkably straightforward.
In other words, if you’re expecting the kind of final uplift found in Boyle’s more recent work, you’ll likely feel let down. I knew at least that much going into the press screening. I knew I was in for a wild ride in a wicked thriller where nothing I saw and no one I met was trustworthy. That’s what I got and I loved every cheeky duplicitous inch of it. It can be argued that Boyle’s last film, 127 Hours, is a better movie — and maybe it is — but I had a much better time with Trance and know I’ll be revisiting it more than once. I can’t say that about 127 Hours, which I have never had any inclination to see even a second time. And, no, that’s not just because Trance offers a complex puzzle — it’s because it offers a beguilingly brilliant cinematic puzzle.
James McAvoy (more or less standing in for Ewan McGregor) stars as Simon, a young man who works in security for a high-tone art auction house. No sooner has he guided us through the elaborate procedures taken to prevent a theft than just such a theft — ₤27.5 million worth of Goya — occurs. Boyle stages the whole thing with breathtaking style and what is ultimately proven to be brilliant misdirection. Master criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel) gets away with the painting and Simon is injured in the process, but, as it turns out, Franck only has an empty frame. We soon learn that Simon was in on the job and hid the painting before Franck took its supposed container out of the auction house.
The problem is that a blow to the head has given Simon amnesia and he doesn’t know where the painting is now. (A bout of torture proves this to Franck’s satisfaction.) This is where Harley Street hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) comes in — and where things start to get progressively tricky. This is also where it becomes a good idea to stop detailing the film’s plot since the fun involves watching this labyrinth of a plot unravel — and, if you’re paying close attention, to see how Boyle and screenwriters John Hodge and Joe Ahearne drop subtle hints along the way that nothing is as it seems. I’d have to see the movie at least once more to be sure of this, but I think it plays fair with the viewer. We are often shown things — or parts of scenes — that won’t add up until the film ends, but that serve as signposts along the way.
I’m not saying that Trance is any kind of deep-dish masterpiece. If it has any meaning at all, it’s simply that what we see — and think we know — may well be only a slippery illusion, and I doubt that even that was uppermost on Boyle’s mind. This strikes me more as an expression of Orson Welles’ old claim that movies are the best set of electric trains any boy ever had. It’s that kind of explosively playful cinema, but when the trains are in the hands of Danny Boyle, they make for a first class trip. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre