Of our current crop of Respected film directors — those bestowed with Oscars or other accolades — Danny Boyle is one of the more idiosyncratic. Like Steven Soderbergh, he's a genre hopper, but instead of sporting a version of Soderbergh's icy remove, Boyle's films flicker with a jumpy, kinetic sense of life and humanity. Even the thrillers he makes, like the new art heist/hypnotism picture Trance, can't help but ooze a sense of dreamy soulfulness. Though, it unfortunately gets lost in a haze of its own making.
Trance begins regularly enough, with an art auctioneer named Simon (James McAvoy) explaining, in voice over, the mechanics of art theft. We then watch a crack team of thieves lift Goya's Witches in the Air, valued at over $25 milllion, right out of the auction house mid-auction. At this point it seems like we might be in for a slick caper film, something in the vein of Thomas Crown or Ocean's Eleven. But then again there's that title, suggesting something more psychological than physical. That's when the doubling-back begins, and we soon realize that the heist we thought we witnessed wasn't the heist that actually happened. In the scramble, Simon hits his head and wakes up in the hospital. He's in fine shape except that he can't remember one crucial detail: Where the Goya ended up. He was of course the inside man in the robbery, but he last-minute double crossed his partners (particularly the ringleader, Franck, played by Vincent Cassel) and stowed the painting... somewhere. The location is locked inside his addled brain, so Franck settles on the idea to use hypnosis to draw the memory out of its hiding place.
Enter Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a beautiful and seemingly talented hypnotherapist who spends most of her time getting people to quit smoking or lose weight. She can tell that Simon is holding something back when he shows up asking for help finding his keys, while the audience can tell that Elizabeth has her share of secrets too. Thus begins a sequence of hypnotism sessions, Dawson's voice slow and soothing, Boyle's camera gently pulling us into this peculiar interior world. From this point on, Trance keeps the audience in a constant state of confusion. Which memories are really Simon's and which have been implanted, Inception-style, by the wily Elizabeth? Who's conning whom here, and is a lot of this maybe just a dream? Boyle and his screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge keep the guesswork canny and fun for a little while, but eventually it all gets too convoluted, paint colors bleeding into a muddy and pointless black.
Trance is well-acted and features some beautiful filmmaking, rich color-saturated images scored dreamily by composer Rick Smith. But it ultimately proves an alienating jumble. There's nothing to grab a hold of. Just when we've gotten into the tricky caper plot, the movie takes a left turn and becomes a disorienting thriller of the mind. The film is strangely kind and delicate until it erupts with needlessly graphic violence. Unexpected switches in tone and mood are fine on principle, without them many films would be static, but Boyle's shifts are too awkward, too sudden and seemingly arbitrary. By the end of the film our allegiances have changed several times without us really ever caring about anybody. When we do get the final story, the real "this is what happened" explainer, in some ways it negates the entire film.
Boyle clearly wanted to make a film that's a trick of perception, the trouble is, the hypnotism device places all those fun unpackable mechanics, the twists and turns and feints, in an intangible place. This isn't sleight of hand, it's sleight of mind, and that allows for too much possibility. Trance keeps spiraling up and up and up into a world of unreality and when it finally does alight back on Earth, it's dizzy and it stumbles. Still, there is some merit in the trying. Boyle's misfires are, if nothing else, consistently interesting, little experiments in form and technique that may not yield the results he intended, but at least create something worth talking about. Trance, a thriller that sorta forgets to thrill, is a small film from a big mind; one I'm always happy to peer into whenever it's offered.