Movie Information

The Story: Fast-paced combination heist movie and psychological thriller about the theft of a painting, and its incredibly convoluted aftermath where what you think you know is almost always wrong. The Lowdown: Cheekily amoral, unbelievably complex, dark, humored thriller from Danny Boyle that's reminiscent of his earlier work. Deep? Probably not, but as an act of pure filmmaking it's a must-see.
Genre: Dark Twisty Thriller
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson, Danny Sapani, Matt Cross, Wahab Sheikh
Rated: R

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

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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34 thoughts on “Trance

  1. I know this contradicts what I just said about EVIL DEAD, but I’d be curious to see the original version of this and see how they compare. From listening to interviews with Boyle, it sounds like they hold the same basic setup but diverge pretty substantially after that.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Yes, but I don’t think you said what you said about Evil Dead here (as in on this site), which may confuse some. Anyway, the difference here is that Trance might well produce such a desire, while any Evil Dead movie might well be enough for a while. However, I don’t believe the TV film is available.

  3. Jeremy Dylan

    I don’t believe the TV film is available.

    Perhaps it will turn up as an extra on the DVD.

  4. Trex

    I can’t agree more. Great film!
    This and JOHN DIES AT THE END are the best of 2013 so far.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Thank goodness, I was beginning to think no one had gone to see it yet! I won’t actually disagree with your best “list,” but I’d need room for Stoker and maybe Place Beyond the Pines and at least one film that hasn’t made it to town yet.

  6. Xanadon't

    and at least one film that hasn’t made it to town yet.

    I love good omens. Having a hard time guessing though… any hints?

  7. Xanadon't

    Wait, never-mind –I’ve got it. Pain & Gain. 99% confidence.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Well, you’re getting warm. Hints? Hmm. The certainty is in French. The borderline is in English. The French is from one of those directors I almost always really like, but forget about between pictures. The English one is from a filmmaker of whom I’m an established fan. One of his pictures got the no. one spot on my list one year.

  9. Xanadon't

    If you’re not referring to In the House, then I’m never gonna get the French language flick. And the English one is throwing me off too, but maybe just because I’d be insanely jealous if you’ve already seen The Great Gatsby.

  10. Ken Hanke

    You are correct about the French one and it is choice, let me tell you. No, I have not seen Gatsby. (Are you aware that we’re running Moulin Rouge from a new digital print in a downstairs theater — well, actually, you can’t run from a DCP in the Lounge — on Wed., May 8 at 7:30?) Perhaps I should note that it’s from a British director (one closely associated with Ireland).

  11. Xanadon't

    Ah, then I assume we’re speaking of Neil Jordan, though I wasn’t aware that he had an “upcoming attraction”.

    No, I certainly was not aware, but that sounds exactly like something that I would love to attend. Sadly, I work Wednesday nights, and taking off May 8th is unlikely, since I’ll be out of town the following week. Sugar Honey Iced Tea.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Your schedule is most unfortunate. Most.

    Jordan has a new horror picture — a stylish, adult vampire movie called Byzantium. Probably more art film than horror, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from the horror.

  13. Xanadon't

    Yeah, with the Thursday Nigh Horror shows already out the window, it really begins to smart when coveted Wednesday night engagements occasionally come along, forming a FML one-two punch of sorts.

    Anyways, I shall investigate. In the meantime I’d be pretty keen on the idea of filmmakers from around the world uniting to take back the vampire.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Are you planning on the Apr. 24 big screen showing of The Shining? Another Wed., yes.

  15. Xanadon't


    All work and no play makes Xanadon’t a dull boy.
    All work and no pplay makes Xanadon’t a dull boy.
    All work and no play makes xanadon’t a dull boy.
    All work and noplay makes Xanadont a dull boy.
    All worka nd no play makes Xanadon’t a dull boy
    all wokr and no play makes Xanadont’ a dull boy.
    All work and no play make Xandon’t a dull boy.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I am very impressed that you didn’t copy and paste those “all work and no play” things.

  17. Ken Hanke

    And you’re pretty young. I should think the likelihood that you saw it on the screen in 1980 is pretty slim.

  18. Xanadon't

    Copy and pasting is not a very driven-to-madness thing to do. (Nor a scroll type-writer function, naturally.)

    Yeah, I was negative two years old in 1980.

    I just realized that I had a dream that I showed up for the show, only to discover they were playing the first installment of the 1997 TV mini-series. Amused, I was not.

  19. Ken Hanke

    Great snakes, my daughter is older’n you. (Actually, I’d’ve realized that if I’d thought about it.) I may actually have a shirt or two older than you. (I’m not saying I could wear them, mind.)

  20. Xanadon't

    Now might be a good time to catch the spring cleaning fever. Unless of course you’re talking about old Talking Heads concert t-shirts or the like.

    Anyway, this spring chicken just got Wednesday night off from work. How early can we purchase tickets?!

  21. Ken Hanke

    Unless of course you’re talking about old Talking Heads concert t-shirts or the like.

    Well, there’s the tie-in shirt from the original release of Tommy, for one thing.

    Anyway, this spring chicken just got Wednesday night off from work. How early can we purchase tickets?!

    They are available currently.

  22. Orbit DVD

    We made a last-minute decision to go see this and I’m glad we did. It truly is one of the best of 2013 so far. Without giving too much away, it was fun seeing the actors contradict their stereotypical roles.

    I’m guilty of this, and maybe everyone else is as well, but I feel that I take Boyle for granted. His films are at least great and most times excellent.

  23. Lisa Watters

    I really wanted to like this film. My favorite films are the ones where what you think is happening is not what is really happening. Momento, Usual Suspects, Matrix (to some extent), The Prestige, Shutter Island and Inception all come to mind. I knew walking into Trance that all I’d be seeing wouldn’t be as it seemed at first – or even second or third – and for a good while I willingly went along and even enjoyed the ride. However when the end of the film came and the credits rolled I was left feeling distinctly unsatisfied. I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.I think maybe by the end it was just too convoluted for me to buy into.

  24. Xanadon't

    Now that was what I call a fun time at the movies — unlikeable characters and all. Boyle really flexes his sense of style here and I reveled in it. Definitely one I’ll visit again.

    I actually liked Inception less and less after a second and then third viewing, but I don’t see that happening with Trance.

  25. Edwin Arnaudin

    I actually liked Inception less and less after a second and then third viewing, but I don’t see that happening with Trance.

    That’s what has kept me from revisiting Inception. I doubt that additional viewings will match the breakneck freshness of the first time I saw it. I’ve never been physically exhausted after watching a movie but keeping up with everything going on knocked me out. I “got it” the first time and have a feeling that another go will lessen my affinity for it.

    No wonder I prefer The Prestige.

  26. Ken Hanke

    My situation with Inception is odd in that I never think about it, but when I bump into it — which is to say when my wife decides to watch it — it’s always better than I remembered it. But it will not for some reason stick with me.

  27. Big Al

    Saw this Wednesday and glad I did. Makes number two on my top 10 list, as pathetic as it is so far (Beautiful Creatures was more fun). I caught several clues that steered me toward the secret prize in the cracker jacks, but still fell short, so BRAVO Mr. Boyle!

    Preview for “Mud” looked enticing.

  28. Xanadon't

    Glad I caught it while I did. Would’ve been kicking myself one of these DVD-release Tuesdays down the road.

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