Directed by Danny Boyle
Screenplay by Joe Ahearne, John Hodge
James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
How long is Trance? 101 minutes.
What is Trance rated? R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language.
A bold conceptual film that falters under its burdensome plot.
In its brief run time of an hour and 40 minutes, Trance includes a heist to steal a priceless piece of art, a love story, a revenge story, double crosses, a triple cross, amnesia, the power of the mind and a pretty shameless plug for a British carmaker. Even a director as talented as Danny Boyle – known for his sensory overload brand of filmmaking – is unable to make coherent the mass of disparate components that overwhelm the audience. The script by co-writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge plays like an incredibly daring first draft of a screenplay that will, after shedding its superfluous bits, be a very intelligent film. If Trance is the final product, though, I cannot imagine the onerous task of sitting through the earlier iterations.
Before proceeding, be aware plot spoilers will appear since any discussion of the film requires them to be examined and critiqued.
During the theft of a very expensive work of art, Simon (James McAvoy), an employee of the auction house, takes a nasty blow to the head from Franck (Vincent Cassel), one of the men stealing the painting. After his recovery in the hospital, we discover Simon was a part of the heist all along as the inside man to help Franck and his crew gain access. Unfortunately for Simon, he got greedy and hid the painting before giving it to Franck, but because of his head injury he cannot remember where he hid it.
After some intense questioning, Franck is convinced Simon is telling the truth and honestly can’t remember where the painting is. Not willing to give up, Franck instructs Simon to meet with a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), in hopes of unlocking the memory he has lost. Elizabeth senses Simon is in trouble and inserts herself into the criminal circle promising she can help Simon remember…if she gets a piece of the profits. Franck is unsure at first, but what choice does he have? Elizabeth may be his only hope of ever seeing the painting again.
Despite its many flaws, Trance is a very entertaining piece of cinema. Boyle, who rarely takes on the same type of film twice, is on full display, demonstrating his keen sense for stunning visuals and hyperactive pacing. However, Boyle’s signature is only detrimental to the film. A story as intricate as Trance deserves to be told with as little filmmaker meddling as possible so as to allow the audience to focus on the story (when necessary) and not how the film looks. This distraction impedes the experience of watching the film because we want to see Boyle front and center and not the plot. I don’t say this to criticize Boyle’s talents as a filmmaker (he is one of my favorite directors working today), but to point out how a director’s enthusiasm for his subject can sometimes be a hindrance.
The real issue, though, is the screenplay which, as I mentioned above, piles on too many plot points and subplots that only torpedo the story faster and faster. Every new “twist” is like adding another person into a lifeboat that is already sinking. It seems as if Ahearne and Hodge are trying to prove to one another or the audience how smart they are. The basic premise of the film (unlocking a hidden memory through hypnosis) is appealing enough; why the writers felt the need to include a love story between Franck and Elizabeth or an unnecessary third act reveal is beyond me.
The acting, though, is quite stellar. I’ve never been a big fan of Dawson, but she gives a very good performance, a character with whom audiences will have no trouble sympathizing. McAvoy is fantastic, as usual. Simon experiences several transformations and revelations throughout the film and McAvoy makes each feel authentic, expressing the perfect amount of emotional upheaval. There is no question he is one of the most talented young actors working today.
Cassel’s work is both strong and impedes the functioning of the story. Cassel oozes charisma on screen and is usually the most appealing actor in any scene. Here, however, this persona works for him and against him. We shouldn’t know if we can trust Franck or not until the very end of the movie. He’s a criminal so by default he shouldn’t be trusted. We are asked to believe, though, that there is more depth to Franck than what he shows at first. Cassel never rises to this challenge, unfortunately, instead playing Franck as a static character throughout. This is the same mistake made by Ryan Phillippe in Cruel Intentions (a movie I loathe to even mention in the same review as Danny Boyle). Cassel is no doubt talented, but he doesn’t fully embrace his character’s requirements.
Trance will be remembered as one of Boyle’s lesser works, but shouldn’t detract from his status as a brilliant filmmaker. The film has more intelligence than 90 percent of what is released in theaters these days so we should be happy there are still writers and directors willing to take a chance.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”