I am wildly fond of Danny Boyle, but I am not always crazy about Danny Boyle’s films.
I think ultimately, I like the energy and the wit with which he approaches the puzzle that is filmmaking. He understands that a film is, first and foremost, a theatrical experience. Watching “Trance,” I felt the same cool sense of self-assured style that made “Trainspotting” such an electrifying experience the first time. There are points in “Trance” where the soundtrack and the visual palette are like an assault of sorts. It is a powerful visceral experience.
As a script? If you’d asked me 2/3 of the way through the film, I would have told you that I thought it was a stylish but slight riff on the heist thriller. Boyle and his screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge are ultimately up to something more than that, but it’s stealthy and sly and very, very sneaky, and I like that. It helps that Boyle has been playing these kinds of games for 20 years now with audiences, and he’s gotten extraordinarily good at the technical craft of what it is that he does. He knows that by the time you sit down in the theater, more likely than not you’ve seen a trailer that suggests this is going to be a weird mind trip of a movie, and so he lets you know right up front that this is going to be that, but he also drops just enough hints to let you know that he wants it to count.
James McAvoy stars as Simon, an auctioneer at a major auction house, and as the film begins, he explains to the audience what he is supposed to do in the case of a robbery. He also talks about how the theft of art has changed over the years. This set-up makes it seems perfectly logical when there is indeed a robbery right at the end of an auction where a Goya sells for $27 million. Simon rushes the painting away to make sure it’s secure, and at the last possible moment, he comes face to face with Franck (Vincent Cassel). Simon knows that he’s not supposed to resist, but when he sees an opportunity, he tries to overpower Franck. He fails, though, and Franck repays him with a blow to the head that lands Simon in the hospital, his memory shattered.
Trouble is, Simon was part of the heist, and Franck’s impulsive act causes Simon to forget what happened in those last few crucial moments when, for some reason, he did not follow the plan. Instead, he pulled a switch, and the painting disappeared. Now, with no way to access his memory, it looks like it may be gone for good.
That’s where Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) comes in. She’s a hypnotherapist, and they randomly pick her because Simon thinks she’s got a nice face. He goes in and, by the end of their first session, it’s obvious that he is very susceptible to hypnotic suggestion, and that he has also got many reasons to bury the secret of the painting as deep as he can.
It’s interesting, considering Boyle’s history, how much McAvoy sounds like Ewan McGregor in several places in the film. I’m sure it’s not intentional, but it makes me wonder if there’s something that the two of them have in common that plays specifically to Boyle’s ear as a storyteller. I like McAvoy’s work a lot in the film, and I think Cassel makes a great foil for him. Cassel is so good at playing terrible, terrible men and making them magnetic even in their worst moments, and he is both very funny in this film and frequently quite scary. The real performance of the film, though, is given by Dawson, who is exceptional here. I think she’s got one of the great faces in modern movies, and it’s not because she’s beautiful, although she is. It’s because she is able to communicate volumes of emotion with the most subtle shifts in attitude. It’s invaluable when playing a cipher like Elizabeth. She’s the real wild card in the movie, the person pulled into this larger game who may be smarter than anyone else involved realizes. Dawson has had a strong sexual presence in films before, but there are some choices here that I thought were genuinely shocking. Sex is one more therapeutic instrument in Elizabeth’s arsenal, and there is one moment in particular that is as frank and intelligent a moment as I can remember in any mainstream film recently, at least in terms of how a character uses sex to either connect with or push away another person. I think it’s silly when people say that an actor is “brave” for appearing nude in a film, but what Dawson does here is sort of remarkable, and it is obvious that she is comfortable using every part of who she is in playing a character.
The film’s propulsive score by Rick Smith is nicely supplemented by both smart soundtrack cues and the daring, even garish cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, who seems to be enjoying his exploration of what digital tools are capable of doing. “Trance” is one of those films where there’s no fat at all. Everything has a purpose. Every line is there for a reason. Ultimately, this is a film about the things we struggle to remember as well as the things we desperately wish we could forget, and perhaps I was wide open to this tonight thanks to some personal turmoil I’m in at the moment. Whatever the case, once I realized what Boyle and his collaborators were really up to, “Trance” blindsided me, and I find myself deeply impressed by this one. I think it’s the best film about the role memory plays in our lives since “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind,” and they’d make a pretty remarkable double-feature.
“Trance” opens today.