Danny Boyle's Trance Offers a Woozy Ride

Is the director's hypnotism thriller good? Bad? It's hard to say—maybe it's both.
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Fox Searchlight Pictures

What can I tell you about Trance, the art-crime/hypnotherapy noir by director Danny Boyle? Well, I can tell you that it's fluid and kinetic and stylish and a treat to look at. (It is, as noted, a Danny Boyle film.) I can tell you that after a sharp but relatively conventional start, it evolves into a whacked-out, gonzo, over-the-top fever dream. What I can't tell you, alas, is what it's my primary job to tell you: namely, whether or not the movie's any damn good.

For what it's worth, I found Trance to be a gas, a loose, loopy, and giddily diverting series of narrative ambushes and false flags. But I can easily envision another me, just like me in virtually every other respect, who hated the movie, who found it sloppy and random and altogether too pleased with its own undeniably limited virtues. So here's the deal: I'll describe the film as best I can without disclosing the repeated curveballs that are both its strength and its weakness. But I'm preemptively indemnifying myself against any complaints that I either: a) recommended a movie outing that ended in disappointment or frustration; or b) failed to laud adequately a work of cinematic genius. I'm sorry, but it's just that kind of film, one that will inevitably divide audiences along fault lines that are hard to predict.

The movie starts with a smooth, clever voiceover by James McAvoy—one good enough that it recalls both fellow Scotsman Ewan McGregor's brilliant introduction to Boyle's Trainspotting, and also the compelling life-of-crime advice offered by not-yet-mega-star Daniel Craig in the opening of Layer Cake. McAvoy plays Simon, a mid-level functionary at an auction house that specializes in putting prices on priceless works of art. Describing The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, a Rembrandt in which the artist is believed to have painted his own likeness, Simon explains, "You can't see him though, because it was stolen. Lots of paintings are stolen." He then proceeds to recount the mechanics of such thefts: how easy they were in the days when you could saunter in with a few hard men and take whatever you liked, and how hard they've become in the years since, with paramilitary Ukrainian guards waiting in a van outside the auction house and fast-drop chutes ready to spirit threatened artworks back to the safety of the underground vault.

Nonetheless there is, of course, a robbery—of Goya's Witches in the Air—and Simon is, of course, the inside man. But when the ringleader of the gang, Franck (Vincent Cassel), delivers him an all-too-authentic blow to the head during the course of the heist, he knocks out all memory of where Simon has stashed the stolen artwork. When torture fails to beget remembrance, Franck sends Simon to a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to crack the subconscious safe in which the painting's location is locked away. Elizabeth—not remotely lamb-like—insinuates herself into Simon's head and into the gang; hypnotic trance and reality become harder and harder to distinguish between; and things generally start getting Boyle-ishly trippy.

A few of the story's twists are almost laughably contrived, and based on a single viewing I can't say whether all the pieces actually fit together. (I rather doubt it.) But for those willing to overlook such niceties, it is a reckless ride.

The journey into delirium is gradual—also: unexpectedly sexual and violent—and it won't be for everyone. A few of the story's twists are almost laughably contrived, and based on a single viewing I can't say for certain whether all the pieces actually fit together. (I rather doubt it.) But for those willing to overlook such niceties, it is a reckless, woozy ride. McAvoy and Cassel are both quite good, the score (by Rick Smith of the band Underworld) throbs appropriately, and Dawson—well, at times the movie seems primarily constructed as a monument to her empyrean allure.

In the end, Trance is to Danny Boyle more or less as Side Effects was to Steven Soderbergh: an arty spin on a trashy B-movie, engineered to showcase the director's particular gifts. (In the case of Soderbergh, his meticulousness; in Boyle's, his pedal-to-the-floor exuberance.) But while I had no absolutely compunction about recommending Side Effects, I am of decidedly mixed minds regarding Trance. You may love it. You may hate it. The appropriate response, if you can manage it, might be to do both at once.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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