REVIEW: Trance [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 101 minutes | Release Date: March 27th, 2013 (UK)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director(s): Danny Boyle
Writer(s): Joe Ahearne & John Hodge


What began in 1994 as a script screenwriter Joe Ahearne wished to turn into his feature film debut, Trance was sent to Danny Boyle in hopes the Shallow Grave helmer would give him the thumbs-up to follow his cinematic footsteps. Boyle instead told Ahearne the piece would prove too difficult for a first-time director, causing the newcomer to gravitate towards television in the interim and create the critically acclaimed “Ultraviolet”. Upon its success, however, Ahearne went back to that original script and turned it into a TV movie he would direct. From there he created another BBC series entitled “Apparitions”, worked behind the camera on a few episodes of the “Doctor Who” rebirth, and eventually saw Boyle ask about bringing a new iteration of his initial idea to the big screen sixteen years later.

Making the genesis of Trance even more cyclical, Boyle also enlisted John Hodge—old friend and screenwriter of his aforementioned debut Shallow Grave—to do script doctoring before beginning principal photography on this stylish psychological thriller. An intricate mind-game of memory, forced illusion, and violent deceit, the heist at its center becomes nothing more than a jumping off point of ulterior motives and characters out for selfish reward. Art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) leverages his integrity to steal a twenty million dollar Goya in a self-proclaimed clichéd inside job before finding himself knocked unconscious and bleeding in the aftermath of its exchange with Franck (Vincent Cassel), the leader of the coldblooded thieves he’s joined. Making matters worse, though, the painting isn’t in the case when the time comes for Franck to enjoy his victory.

With the truth trapped in Simon’s short-term amnesia-ridden mind, the task of finding its location is left to psychotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). Figuring out her new patient isn’t simply looking for his “lost keys”, she quickly wedges herself into this band of criminals as an equal partner in their success. The last line of defense to save Simon’s life from Franck—who already saved it from men looking to collect on his gambling debt—Elizabeth must gain the trust of both men as she digs for answers. But as the charade continues down its darkened corridor, the motivations of all involved begin to skew under the increasingly blurred line between reality and dream. As Simon retreats into his brain to discover what he did during the robbery, obsession and subterfuge threaten to push the truth even deeper.

Shot in a series of overlapping actions as one Simon is hypnotized to become another who in turn watches a replay of what occurred to the original Simon days earlier, Trance confuses its audience to the point of not being able to comprehend which layer is real. Sexual escapades begin to converge, jealousy becomes unavoidable, and authority rapidly changes hands as each pawn on the board loses all form of objectivity. The mild-mannered turn malevolent as the violent and crazed express hidden feelings of passion. Fear rears its head to turn partners into enemies and victims into predators as each trip into Simon’s mind reveals truths his puppetmaster hoped would be too far removed to resurface. The twists and turns ratcheting up the suspense until its climactically fiery end.

Unfortunately, this is also where Boyle’s stylistic flourishes of fractured psyches and constantly changing personalities are unable to overcome the script’s eventual lack of mystery. The auteur expertly includes blatant clues and performance nuance that are out-of-place at the time but forgettable enough to disappear until their true importance is uncovered. Instead of letting our minds process these details in an intelligent way, Ahearne and Hodge’s screenplay lets its mastermind explain everything in a way too matter-of-fact, expository way. Flashbacks shove the subtlety down our throats, the filmmakers give a broad wink of “yeah, we tricked you”, and what once was excitement turns to indifference. Complex ideas were conjured in my mind with convoluted twists of schizophrenia or role reversals and more, but the intrigue of that unknown only made way towards disappointing inevitability.

Too many answers are given despite so many left in the dark. This is the root of my frustration because so much was brilliantly left in a purgatory of “was it real” or “was it fake” that when we’re given the truth so baldly everything retaining mystery loses its import. Who cares if Simon and Elizabeth’s relationship or Franck’s and hers were real? Who cares if the disgruntled thieves made to wait for their payday actually talked about murdering dead weight or if those conversations were planted morsels of paranoia? Everything that was interesting about the film becomes moot when the revelation of what really happened is shared in way that proves none of the rest mattered. Trance ends up too smart for its own good, so intent on shocking us that the real shock is its inability to do so.

It’s a shame because I was riveted to my seat for the first two thirds. The visual transitions between nightmares of dream and reality are flawless, the kicks out of hypnosis authentic and full of psychological transformation. Higher above this are the performances of Cassel’s Franck and right-hand man Nate (Danny Sapani) exuding power and malicious will while McAvoy and Dawson perpetually prove more than meets the eye. These latter two are amazing once the surface sheen dissolves into much darker territory than their usual roles ever allow. Dawson is sexy, smart, and secretive, McAvoy unassuming and vicious as both effortlessly shimmer between vulnerable and authoritative. Sadly, everything they do right finds itself left by the wayside after the film’s bow-tied conclusion stops you from caring about going back to wonder at what was left unexplained.

[1] James McAvoy as “Simon” on the set of TRANCE. Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
[2] Rosario Dawson as “Elizabeth” on the set of TRANCE. Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
[3] Vincent Cassel as “Franck” on the set of TRANCE. Photo By: Susie Allnutt

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