What most personal fantasy-based movies generally have in common is a rigid adherence to a single point of view, so that flights into the unreal and the figurative realm of dreams are subjective down to one person’s mind. If a movie hedges its success on the erratic relationship between a protagonist’s perceptions and reality itself, it can make for dizzyingly exciting viewing, plunging you into mysteries nested in mysteries so intertwined that you want to shout what you know at the screen and squint in disbelief at the same time. Trance promised to be such, a countdown-based mind bender of a Rubik’s Cube following the story of an unreliable, amnesiac art expert clunked over the head by gangsters. Occasi0nally it is such a puzzle, shuffling in some repressed memories and lip-quiveringly demented imagery, but it’s also bent on being another kind of movie, and another, until what’s left is sort of a muddled composition of competing perspectives and anchor points that never truly immerses you into the ethereal dreamscape that it set up.
Trance reunites Danny Boyle with screenwriter John Hodge, who I’ve always had mixed feelings about. Their early work is zippy, confident, unexpected, and as such highly entertaining, though I’ve always kept Shallow Grave and Trainspotting at a distance, never getting caught up in their hype. Maybe it’s because I’ve matured and mellowed in my ancientness. I always felt Boyle’s early work hit rough patches and lost momentum. Possibly because of the sheer velocity of his outbursts, his quiet moments always felt too quiet, shockingly conventional for being so traditionally directed. A Life Less Ordinary, for all it’s whimsy, had none of the fire of the previous two films, no swagger, but then no heart either, and it suffered for it, starting off sweetly and batting its eyelashes at you the whole time. Trance is in the same early-Boyle territory, on a narrow Michigan road with no room to swerve, hitting every bump in the way to destroy momentum and distract you from your thoughts.
Dabbling in different points of view, Trance starts ostensibly as Simon’s story. James MacAvoy, when not being plain old cocky, will be found laughing in disbelief, as he always seems to be on the cusp of some minor revelation. After having so excellently played Robbie in Atonement and the stonified faun Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, he could’ve invested a little vulnerability into the role, but as a gambling addicted antiquities dealer who once played Professor X, his combination of high culture smarts and low social rank has apparently rendered him impervious to the assaults of the English criminal underworld. He’s acting as the inside man for an art heist put on by Franck (Vincent Cassel), and when he very unexpectedly tazes Franck during their pre-arranged holdup, Franck quite understandably clobbers him in the head with the butt of a shotgun. Here we slip into amnesia with Simon, and for all the questions we have ready to be answered, the highest on our list is why the hell did Simon attack Franck?
When Franck escapes and finds himself in possession of the empty frame to a priceless painting, he demands an explanation. Being a patron of the arts and thus an enlightened man, he discards brutality in favor of more proactive methods, deciding to set Simon up with a hypnotist to recall his memory. Simon begins the movie with a speech, talking directly to the audience, and it seems obvious that he’s our key into this story. Once Rosario Dawson’s hypnotist Elizabeth makes it onscreen, that’s less of a given. Soon we’re following her and Franck, ignoring Simon altogether in his state of miserable confusion. At one point we’re even watching the story through the eyes of Franck’s chief goon. Was there no way around this? Couldn’t we trust the narrative to unfold by keeping him on the sideline? In the spirit of that clunkiness, the central mystery unravels with blatant shocks. It wants to be clever, to misdirect us, but the rug is violently pulled out from under us, forcing us to believe new truths without any room for ambiguity. So we just wait for the next twist obediently after the last one bonked us on the head. The structure begins to supersede the characters, and I could imagine Joe Ahearnes (the original writer, I guess, though I don’t wish to judge him) scribbling down the script, asking what-ifs left and right until a nice little potboiler emerged. What if an art dealer helped steal a painting? What if he took it from the thieves? What if he was a gambling addict? Ooh! What if he got amnesia! I know that’s exactly how stories are created, and I love What If. I live by it. But it shouldn’t be so… obvious I guess. I’m depressed thinking about it.
Simon begins the movie talking about a painting by Rembrandt in which the painter included himself, hidden, gazing out at its audience. It’s a nifty little fact, and since it prefaces the plot, one that must bear some significance. So who’s looking out at us? Simon? Elizabeth? Is Elizabeth the artist looking out at Simon? Or is Simon stuck in the painting looking for an escape? If Danny Boyle’s looking out at his audience, I’m afraid he’ll see many expressionless, unengaged faces.
I hate to speak so ill of Danny Boyle’s work. The intention is there, as is the nonconformity. It just can’t work as a heist flick, a dark romantic drama, and a psychological thriller all at once. I can’t get past the strange choice of source material either. Boyle insisted on finishing this while work commenced on the Olympic ceremonies, but why do something so derivative, and something that has already been committed to film only a decade prior? He may imbue it with some bonkers visuals, an obsessive mirror motif that doesn’t quite come off (Simon is the only one with amnesia, and mirror imagery doesn’t really work itself in there, especially when it’s attached to every character. His “glass box” motif is better achieved. Anyway….), and some wicked scoring by Rick Smith, but where’s the adventure in this choice?
Rick Smith’s music is top notch – really – calling to mind all of Underworld’s contributions to Boyle’s back catalog: Sunshine, Trainspotting, The Beach. There are times when it oversells, building to a crescendo that feels earth shattering, only for whatever transpires on scene to become just a minor progression in the plot, one of those rug pullings that yanks us forward. Here Smith is forced into traditional ominous strings that offer none of the bounce of his more innovative compositions. When Elizabeth descends into another husky exposition-laced monologue concerning Simon’s condition, Smith’s room for improvisation is crushed. The overall failure of the score is a direct result of the unevenness of the narration.
I believe Danny Boyle was at his best with Alex Garland (the Garlanded Era, future biographer P. William Brawlz [a pseudonym] will call it), even if it did start obliquely with a sort of passing of the torch, John Hodge adapting Garland’s The Beach with ignominious results. What followed was the supremely entertaining and cerebral one-two punch of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, the latter of which I will defend to the end, even against writer and director both if I must. Garland’s high concepts were perfectly suited to Boyle’s free-spirited camera and naturalistic actor coaching, and the brilliant musical choices were the icing on the cake. Garland himself has since moved into adaptation mode, which I sincerely hope he’ll break soon enough.
Believe me, I made an effort to find the silver lining here. I tried to make sense of the shifting POV and the genre-bending. It’s a movie about brainwashing and amnesia, so maybe we’re supposed to be this disoriented. In the end, it’s not worth trying to figure out, and even if I could manage to reach a favorable conclusion, the work would’ve been too exhausting to appreciate. I’ll leave it to a nerdy film major in twenty years to prove me wrong (or today if someone wants to piss and moan in the comments, I guess). Until then, I’ll look forward to the future output of Boyle, Hodge, Smith, and company, as I know how capable they are when they’re fully inspired.