Film Review: Danny Boyle’s Twisty Film Noir Rave-Up Trance Psychs Itself Out

Danny Boyle’s Twisty Film Noir Tries To Psych Us Out. Or Does It? ... Yes, It Does.

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
It looks like a window. It feels like a window. But it might only be a metaphor for something extremely window-like.
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Simon (James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class) works at a prestigious London auction house. He’s in charge of selling off masterpieces, like the Francisco Goya painting “Witches in the Air,” which is about to go under the hammer for nearly $30 million. When we first meet Simon, he’s explaining to us (in voice-over) the security procedures at the auction house in case of a robbery. That’s an awfully timely thing to do, since a gang of strong-arm robbers soon breaks in to the auction house with their eyes set on getting that Goya painting for quite a bit less than the reserve price. During the robbery, Simon is cold-cocked by the gang leader and ends up in the hospital with a brain injury. This is a bummer for a couple of reasons. First of all brain damage is no laughing matter. Second of all Simon was in on the robbery the whole time and now can’t remember what he did with the painting because of some mighty selective (and narratively convenient) amnesia. What can our art thieves possibly do in such a situation—other than the obvious, which is apparently send Simon to a licensed hypnotherapist to have his mind probed for secrets?

This is the high-concept, twist-filled setup for director Danny Boyle’s new crime thriller
Trance. It’s the kind of setup that requires lots of voice-overs, frequent flashbacks and plenty of explicatory scenes in order to keep viewers apprised of what the hell is going on.

Unable to recall why he double-crossed his fellow thieves (or even if he
did), Simon shows up at the office of sexy psychiatrist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson, Sin City). Soon she’s up to her neck in repressed memories and psychotic gangsters (led by creepy-sexy Frenchman Vincent Cassel from Black Swan, Ocean’s Twelve and Irréversible). But what in this neo-noir imaginarium is real, what’s a lie and what’s a hypnosis-induced fantasy?

Trance really wants to roll Inception, Total Recall and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind into a giant burrito and eat it. The problem is simple, though: Trance is so damn twisty it ends up tying itself in knots. A really memorable mindbender tricks audiences into thinking we know exactly what’s going on—and then pulls the rug out from under our feet. Trance’s script—by longtime Danny Boyle collaborator John Hodge (Trainspotting, The Beach) and British TV writer-director Joe Ahearne (“Ultraviolet,” “Doctor Who”)—is basically never on solid ground. There isn’t a moment when we don’t feel as if the film is jerking us around, twisting the truth or otherwise trying to trick us into thinking we’re seeing something real when we totally aren’t. Psych! Double psych! The premise itself is so far-fetched that even the clearly realistic scenes come across as phony. What self-respecting gangsters are going to pay for several weeks’ worth of therapy instead of just killing people for information? (No, not even Tony Soprano—he only paid for his own therapy.) The magical way in which hypnosis is able to create alternate, Matrix-like worlds is just not believable. And the amount of sheer coincidence necessary to make the film’s final solution fit together is enough to give you a dairy-free ice cream headache.

It’s a bummer, really, that the script paints such an unnecessarily complicated picture. Boyle (
Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) gives this film noir rave-up plenty of dazzle and spark. Like Trainspotting, it’s darkness with a techno beat. There are moments when Trance sucks you into its silly, downward-spiraling universe. Dawson is mesmerizing—hypnosis aside. Cassel is always a pleasure to watch on screen, playing heroes who are never too good and villains who are never too bad. As the lead, McAvoy is perfectly charismatic. But in the end, the script renders his character uninhabitable.

You’re familiar with the phrase “two wrongs don’t make a right—but three lefts do”? Well, unfortunately,
Trance is one of those films that takes four or five lefts and never manages to get right again. It’s one of those long, strange, crazy trips that, at the end of it all, seems like exhausting fun but might not have been worth the trouble.

It looks like a mirror ...


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