Dark, brutal, hypnotic; these are a few choice adjectives you could use to describe Danny Boyle’s latest psychological thriller, “Trance.” The “Trainspotting” director is no stranger to this shadowy territory—remember the arm-cutting scene in “127 Hours”—but we’re talking an entirely different level here. At one point the top of a man’s head is blown clean off, yet his mouth keeps talking, and there’s a rotting corpse that’s as horrific as anything you’ll see in the most gruesome horror film. And let us not forget to mention the fingernail pulling and the dick shooting, which are both not to be missed. Not for the squeamish, there’s a gleeful layer of the macabre to this noir tale.
And this is most definitely modern noir. You have a heist, a mystery, a femme fatale, a bunch of nefarious characters, and everyone is working their own angle, out for number one. When an upscale London art auction is robbed—the bandits make off with an original Goya—Simon (James McAvoy), the inside man, gets cracked on the noggin, and can’t remember where he hid the hijacked painting. When torture doesn’t jog his memory, Franck (Vincent Cassel), the head goon, and company turn to Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist, to retrieve the lost memories.
What follows is an examination of the nature of memory and motivation that borders on hallucinatory nightmare. You’re never sure what’s real, what’s a dream, if this is hypnosis or real life, or who is playing whom and what the end game is. There’s always more to the story, to the people, and as the film progresses, Boyle reveals secrets and lies, twisting the story into unexpected directions. At its highest peaks, “Trance” aims to unravel the intricacies of the human mind, obsession, murder, and recalls magical realism.
That all sounds well and good, right? And in some ways it is. “Trance” is gritty and turbulent, and occasionally like walking through a haunted funhouse. But in the end, all the sound and fury signify nothing. At first I thought this was a fantastic feat of storytelling, and the film is definitely going that way early on, but ultimately you feel duped. Like that funhouse, it is all an illusion built on an unstable foundation that crumbles when you pile on too much weight.
Maybe that’s harsh. “Trance” is glossy, slick, and, especially early on in the film, the trippy madness is a lot of fun. Danny Boyle at the helm of a bloody, hardboiled heist? That should be the recipe for good times. But the psychosexual imagery is jumbled and incoherent, and as a result the further the story develops, the more it comes off the rails. A string of nonsensical scenes, lined up in a poor attempt at non-linear storytelling, build up to, well, Rosario Dawson strolling down a hallway fully nude and waxed—Simon has a thing about pubic hair.
While that’s fine, you want a movie to be about something more than a naked woman.
All bells and whistles and brightly colored shiny things, “Trance” never shocks you like the filmmakers want to, and isn’t as complex as it appears at first glance—piecing the puzzle together comes with surprising ease. In fact, you feel like they’re trying to outsmart you, and that’s kind of insulting.