Trance is not short on style. It’s got a lot of the presentational flair we’ve come to expect from Danny Boyle films: physical torment, graphically depicted; frenetic use of edits and camera movement to jar the viewer into disorientation; a nested narrative built on twists and reveals. It has moments of suspense and action that almost always work. Yet that style is all the film really has. Based on a screenplay by Joe Ahearne (which Ahearne actually made as a TV-movie in 2001) and reworked by regular Boyle collaborator John Hodge, Trance grows less and less substantial with each new revelation. Sometimes the piling on of plot can make a film feel overstuffed, but it has the opposite effect here: the more you see, the more you realize how little is there to begin with. It’s as if someone took a decent short film and blew it out to feature length with lurid distractions, wild misdirection, and a fervent prayer that viewers would be too won over by the lights to look for the people flicking the switches.
It’s not that there isn’t an interesting premise hidden inside. The film’s set in the world of art theft and deals with perception and memory, and its set-up revolves around an auction house employee named Simon (James McAvoy) who’s involved with a heist of a valuable Goya painting and who, after being struck on the head during the stick-up, suffers massive brain trauma that renders him unable to remember what he did with the goods. As a result, ringleader Franck (Vincent Cassel) takes Simon to see a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), in the hopes of unearthing the missing memory. See? Pulpy, fun, not without a sense of danger, and a refreshing take on heist stories because the actual heist is just a prelude to the hunt for the truth Simon can’t remember.
The problem is that the screenplay’s first act is its strongest by miles, and no one’s quite clear where to go after that. As a result, what’s meant to be character development instead becomes reversal, and Boyle re-adjusts the film’s moral compass and narrative direction every 10-15 minutes. Twists and betrayals are wonderful when done right, but a big part of making them work is using them judiciously. In other words, it’s one thing to take viewers on a journey with a character, but it’s another to never let them know where they stand. Boyle has described his approach here as a “delicious perversion,” but I’m not sure either word works here. Without a clear emotional entry point into the story (good or bad), we’re left to find other ways to stay engaged, but there’s only so much that pyrotechnics can do. Simon’s hiding something, yes, but Boyle never holds us close enough to him to care. Franck’s a ruthless killer prone to pulling out someone’s fingernails to get them to talk, but his narrative drive is reduced to saying “Well, now what do we do?” and watching things play out. Elizabeth’s the most compelling character because she immediately senses how much power she has in helping these criminals recover their missing treasure, but she still feels like a pawn in everyone else’s game. (I didn’t even know Elizabeth was supposed to be the focus of the movie until Boyle said so in the press.)
Boyle also makes some curious structural choices for a movie about the elusive nature of memory. He’ll often cut between two scenes that are happening simultaneously, then nest within them flashbacks and flashforwards in an attempt to kind of transmit a broad feeling instead of specific ones tied to a bit of narrative. I found myself thinking, perhaps inevitably, of Inception, and of how Christopher Nolan used visual and auditory cues to establish multiple levels of consciousness that he could then slide rapidly between without losing the thread of the story or the viewer’s place in the action. Boyle, though, makes no such concessions, but instead of coming across as a worthy challenge the film too often feels like a mess of ideas and plot points no one bothered to sort out. The stylistic touches work better in smaller doses, like the way Simon’s often shown reflected against glass, split in two, or the way Elizabeth’s apartment is dominated by grids and lines to emphasize her control. Similarly, the directing and energy often come together to make individual sequences work — the heist that kicks off the film, an action-based lucid dream that serves as the movie’s halfway/turning point — but those parts never form a whole.
So much of the film looks good on paper. The cast is talented, and well-suited to their roles: Dawson’s got a graceful strength that commands attention, and McAvoy’s one of the few who could take on such a mercurial role and still find small ways to make you want to root for him. And in little glimpses, from the corner of your eye, Trance holds together. When you really look, though, you see that each new shock or reveal or dream sequence is meant to do nothing but disorient you for a few more minutes in the hopes that the appearance of complexity can pass for the real thing. But the thicker the plot, the thinner it gets, until by the end you’ve forgotten what’s happened and why it matters. Late in the film, there’s a smash cut from one location to another, and it feels so much like the rapid transitions Boyle uses to move between memories and the real world that you’re not sure what’s happened. A man seated a few rows behind me was unable to repress a cry of “Give me a break,” but he wasn’t trying to be rude. He just felt cheated and couldn’t hold it in. Buddy, I know how you feel.