I don’t expect my heist movies and psychological thrillers to be plausible, but I do expect them to build towards the Big Reveal—how the thieves pulled off the heist, who the mastermind was, what triggered the amnesiac to remember what he did, etcetera—at the end. The problem with Trance, the latest from Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, is that it’s already revealed too much thirty minutes in. In spite of all of its slickness—and it is one of the more aesthetically impressive thrillers I’ve seen recently—Trance is jumbled and not that hypnotic.
The film’s opening scene is the heist itself, narrated by gallery auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) and constructed so that, once you know that Simon was in on it, you can figure out how the plan was supposed to work. (The ostensible lead thief is Franck, played by Vincent Cassel, someone who just looks and sounds like he was born to play these types of roles.) The only thing obscured is the stolen Goya’s post-heist location—the film’s hook is that, upon returning to the safe house, Franck realizes that he actually didn’t walk off with the painting while inside man Simon, knocked unconscious by Franck during the robbery, forgets what he did with it—but unfortunately the film loses interest in this potentially intriguing detail to veer off into psychological thriller territory after Franck discovers that hypnosis might help Simon recall where he left the painting.
Frustratingly, though, the film all but gives away the mastermind as soon as it tries to convince you that it’s Ocean’s Eleven plus Memento, leaving you to spend the rest of the running time sort of twiddling your thumbs, waiting for everybody to come to their senses. Because you can guess who the psychological head honcho is pretty quickly, that means that within a half hour we know how 95% of the heist went down and who was responsible for the 5% about which we’re unsure. When Simon’s memory finally comes around, then, he’s just remembering stuff that’s been pretty obvious for most of the movie, which makes the ending less satisfactory and renders the middle scenes mostly baffling, unnecessary, or merely tangential to the story’s resolution.
All is made relatively clear by the end, of course, but I say “relatively” because Franck’s assistant henchmen were superfluous, I’m still unsure how Simon and Franck ever got to know each other and thus organize the theft, and the movie provides no foreshadowing of the motivation behind the heist, which has to do with a trait of Simon’s and his relationship to his therapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) that, unless I totally missed it, went unmentioned until the finale. The film could have saved itself somewhat if the step-by-step process of the opening heist and the “how” of that last 5% been a little more nerve-racking or suspenseful, but the final explanation didn’t really depend on what I’d seen in Simon’s flashback sequences when he was straining to remember what happened, dulling the effect of any eureka moment.
This inability of the story’s to string together the heist and flashback sequences with the ultimate payoff, and to successfully elucidate how all of the characters were linked, made me less invested in an already confusing movie. I think I would have cared more if Trance chose to emphasize its heist-movie qualities—it’s a gorgeous film (more on this below) that knows how to show off the grandeur of some really cool paintings—but it’s the psychological thriller side that dominates, leaving art and art galleries as the sideshow when they might have been better-suited as the main attraction. Let me put it this way: I would have been more hypnotized if the movie were actually about stealing the Goya (and again, the movie begins as if this is the direction it’s going to take) than I was by Simon’s undergoing hypnosis.
Danny Boyle’s direction does deserve some plaudits, even if the script isn’t really worthy of the movie’s sonic and visual experience for the reasons stated above. Boyle’s movies have a kinetic quality lacking in most films, and Trance is as lively and pulsating as you’d hope if you’re familiar with his oeuvre. Speaking of pulsating, that’s exactly what the techno- and Europop-inspired score by Rick Smith is, and it’s perfectly appropriate—indeed it enhances the movie as much as it can—here. (Smith is a member of the English techno band Underworld, whose music Boyle used in Trainspotting.) Boyle also joins creative forces again with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, his frequent collaborator of late (he photographed Slumdog, 127 Hours, and other recent works for Boyle), to beautiful effect, with deep blues, reds, yellows, and oranges saturating the nighttime London locales. Boyle and Mantle also get great results from shooting on location, specifically at Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut—one of my favorite examples of church architecture, ever—in Ronchomp, France, for one of Simon’s hypnosis dreams. What’s disappointing, and what limits the effect of the soundtrack and pictures on screen, is Boyle’s re-teaming with John Hodge, the co-writer here and the author of the scripts for Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, among others. As you might have guessed from my spotting of (and weird enthusiasm for) postmodern church architecture, I’m a sucker for art history, and perhaps that explains why I thought it was a mistake not to pursue the heist plot line more. Even so, I think Trance had difficulty figuring out what it wanted to be, and how it wanted to go about telling its story. The result is that it looks and sounds attractive, but isn’t really much more than a Pet Shop Boys video with dialogue in place of lyrics.