Danny Boyle is one of the few directors working today whose projects are almost always met with fervent excitement, and that’s certainly the case with “Trance.” Though moviegoers were forced to wait a few years for Boyle’s much-anticipated follow-up to “127 Hours” – due to other engagements on stage (the National Theatre production of “Frankenstein”) and for his country (the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony) – the delay seemed well worth it following the news that he would be reteaming with frequent collaborator John Hodge (“Shallow Grave,” “Trainspotting”). In retrospect, my expectations were probably set a little too high, because although “Trance” is an entertaining psychological thriller, it doesn’t quite live up to Boyle’s more recent, award-winning work.
The film’s whiz-bang opening sets the stage when art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) teams up with a group of criminals to steal Francisco Goya’s 1798 masterpiece “Witches in the Air” during an auction in progress. Everything is going according to plan when Simon suffers a blow to the head during the heist, only to awaken with no memory of where he hid the painting. When more conventional methods (i.e. torture) prove ineffective, the gang’s leader Franck (Vincent Cassel) hires hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to dig deep into Simon’s psyche and help jog his memory. But as Simon starts to piece together his broken subconscious, he becomes increasingly suspicious of Franck and Elizabeth’s ulterior motives, reconfirming why he chose to stash the painting in the first place.
Adapted from Joe Ahearne’s 2001 TV movie of the same name, “Trance” is so thinly plotted and riddled with gaps in logic that it’s to the credit of Boyle and his cast that they’re able to keep things interesting throughout the bloated 101-minute runtime. James McAvoy has been slowly building a solid career as a reliable leading man, but his role here lets him explore a slightly darker side for once, and it’s a refreshing change of pace for the actor, while Vincent Cassel injects his cool and composed thief with enough humanity that he’s more than just your typical villain. The real surprise, however, is Rosario Dawson. Though the actress hasn’t done much of note since her debut in Larry Clark’s polarizing teen drama “Kids,” she delivers her best work yet with an outstanding performance as the movie’s femme fatale.
In that respect, “Trance” feels like a neo-noir of sorts, even if the mystery isn’t nearly as compelling as Hodge’s screenplay would have you believe. Boyle masks a lot of the script’s problems with some nifty visuals and the same kinetic energy that’s prevalent in his other films, but the frantic pace only lasts so long before the story grinds to a halt, suffocated by a never-ending series of twists and red herrings that makes it almost impossible to discern what’s real versus what’s happening under hypnosis. That’s obviously the point, but by the time the movie arrives at its climactic ending, it becomes one twist too many, and instead of a brilliant mind-bender, it feels like a cheap trick written by someone trying to outdo “Inception.” The film is ultimately saved by Boyle’s ingenuity and some strong performances, but for a movie with such a unique premise, “Trance” should have left a more lasting impression – one that would actually be remembered years from now. You know, like “Inception.”