Director: Danny Boyle Writer: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson Runtime: 101 min
Simon (James McAvoy) is a fine arts auctioneer who assists several professional thieves steal a rare Francisco Goya painting titled Witches in the Sky. During the robbery, head thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) gets into a violent altercation with Simon rendering him clueless to whereabouts of the hidden canvas. Subsequently, Simon is diagnosed with amnesia prompting Franck to enlist hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to extract the location of their score. She also becomes drawn into the mystery, battling two minds for control.
Trance is based on a 2001 British TV movie written and directed by Joe Ahearne, who co-writes this version with John Hodge (a Boyle regular). The genre is by definition, a psychological thriller up-fronting most of the action, allowing the plot to slowly delayer Simon’s mind; lots of twists and turns. The writing team creates a chess game, Franck versus Elizabeth, using Simon, the pawn, to arrive at the elusive checkmate. Sometimes the script plays mind games with us; are Simon’s actions real or just hallucinations induced by Elizabeth? One sequence has Simon killing several gang members with Franck’s gun, resulting in the surreal image of Franck talking yet missing half his head. Interesting but it was only a dodge. This screenplay hungers to be more than just a thriller by examining the ethics of mind control.
In the same vein as Boyle and Hodge’s first collaboration Shallow Grave, Trance develops three of its characters: Simon, Franck, and Elizabeth. They are placed in a love triangle, never completely trusting one another. Underrated McAvoy is the lead and believable, not jumping out at first, but there’s more than meets the eye. His gambling debts give him a believable motive for joining Franck’s crew, comparable to Christopher Eccleston’s arc in Shallow Grave. Next is Rosario Dawson, the authority figure, who explains mind control through hypnosis. In one wonderful scene she holds her own, hypnotizing a Cassel crony. Dawson isn’t just eye-candy; she’s sensual never forgetting who and what they are. Cassel, the intimidating Frenchman, is too much of a cliché to take into account (blame the screenplay) but he’s a solid addition to the cast.
Straightaway McAvoy’s Simon breaks the fourth wall talking directly to the viewer (an unreliable narrator) by saying, “no piece of art is worth a human’s life”. When Dawson puts McAvoy under, her voice is soothing and peaceful, yet he continues to block, avoiding his memory. Confusing his memories more is McAvoy’s affectionate projection of Dawson. Now, pay close attention to their dialogue as it becomes clear at the end.
Danny Boyle, a most sought out director, has a strong kinetic visual style that enlightens and nauseates simultaneously. He went into post production, collaborating with 127 Hours editor Jon Harris, after directing the opening ceremonies of the 2012 summer Olympics. His ne-noir drama experimentation with different digital formats helps move the story along. Where does this fall into his filmography? It’s not as powerful or moving as his previous films 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire but more in line with the pulp of Shallow Grave. Curiously it’s an updated version of his 1994 movie. My favourite scenes involve violence; shocking, visceral using Underworld’s Rick Smith’s cerebral score.
Cinematography is a vital component of all Boyle’s films. Shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, advocating for digital photography during the Dogma 95 movement and winning the Oscar in 2008 for Slumdog Millionaire. Using Arri Alexa cameras and Hawk V-Lite lenses, Mantle effectively creates a TV-like aesthetic, with strong reds and yellows dominating to the eye. Canted angles make the experience even trippier. My preferred image is of hypnotized Nat (Danny Sapani) buried alive; disturbing and out-of-nowhere.
Trance is Danny Boyle letting lose, style over substance. He elevates the script, starting strong but unable to maintain focus, getting lost in clouds of the protagonist’s mind. There’s much to enjoy in the performances, cinematography and direction but if you’re looking for a contemporary companion seek out Boyle’s Shallow Grave.