Dark core, lightweight edges; entertaining but frustrating.
Danny Boyle’s latest feature is undeniably lightweight fare, but thankfully reasonably entertaining nonetheless. Boyle is the acclaimed British director behind everything from Shallow Grave to Trainspotting; Slumdog Millionaire to 127 Hours, as well as the tremendous disaster movies Sunshine and 28 Days Later, which stand out even in their overworked respective sci-fi thriller and zombie horror genres. His stories normally involve individuals – however morally questionable – facing overwhelming odds and overcoming them, and he has always brought an energy and intensity to whatever subject-matter he picks, although even his now-distinctive style has not made his features immune to criticism, with The Beach proving to be as much a blotch on Boyle’s filmography as it is on DiCaprio’s.
Between chapters in his ‘28’ series – with 28 Months Later tipped to be his next feature – he decided to make this film, Trance, which purports to be a thrilling journey into the deep, dark recesses of the mind.
Simon (James McAvoy) is a fine art expert who works in a London auction-house. He regularly handles pieces of art worth millions, and thus knows the procedure for dealing with a robbery situation – safeguard the most expensive pieces first by putting them into the time-lock safe – so when Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his team of armed robbers burst into the auction-house, Simon acts coolly and efficiently. Unfortunately he never makes it to the safe, although, unbeknownst to the robbers, he does manage to stow away the art anyway. The trouble is, thanks to a nasty blow to the skull, he has temporary amnesia. The only way that Franck is going to be able to get the location of the art is by delving into the recesses of Simon’s mind – something which he needs the help of hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to do. The truth is hidden, however, much deeper than any of them could possibly have known.
Sure enough the premise to Trance is fairly promising, but the payoff simply doesn’t deliver on that promise. It’s an energetic, hyper-kinetic, uber-stylish feature which twists and turns its way around a convoluted story where nothing and no-one is as it seems, but the end result is just a little bit more lightweight than you would have hoped for from this particular group of filmmakers.
The story was written some 20 years ago by Joe Ahearne, who suggested it to Boyle, who himself had just come from filming his 1994 debut hit Shallow Grave. Boyle thought it would be a tricky project to pull off, and declined the offer – leaving Ahearne to adapt it himself into a 2001 British TV movie – but he never forgot the story, and so elected to direct what is essentially a remake almost two decades later. Whilst this wasn’t necessarily a bad move, one can’t help but wonder whether it would have suited an earlier stage in the director’s career, or actually perhaps suited an entirely different director altogether.
Certainly you’d be hard pushed to avoid thinking ‘Guy Ritchie’ when watching the movie; the rough-and-ready, twisty-turny tale of back-stabbing robbers has the subject-matter, characterisations and basically the same frenetic style as any of Ritchie’s similarly-themed oeuvre (from Lock, Stock to Snatch; Revolver to RocknRolla) – which all equates to fine, fun, frivolity, but is perhaps not quite the standard of feature you might expect from the director who received back-to-back Oscar recognition for his last two films. By doing a film like Trance, it basically feels like Boyle has taken a step backwards in his career; indeed it’s no surprise that, not only was it something of a ‘filler’ project between chapters in his ‘28’ zombie trilogy, but it was also shot prior to his work on the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, and then put on a back-burner until he had finished that mammoth feat.
Still, labelling this as a Guy Ritchie-like crime flick is far from a bad thing; from a pure entertainment point of view it’s an exciting little thriller that tries its best to keep you on your toes and certainly engages you for the duration, even if it remains utterly forgettable once the credits roll. Ultimately this should have been a movie that left you desperate to return for a second or even third viewing –unravelling the early warning signs; the character twists and audience deception with the full power of 20:20 hindsight providing you with all the answers in advance – but it really doesn’t draw you in, or deliver a truly satisfying second run sitting. Still, curiosity might pull you back in.
Perhaps it was a shame Boyle didn’t take the brilliant premise and transform this into a true ‘dreams vs. reality’ classic in the vein of Inception, The Matrix or even the original Total Recall, but the end result is still extremely watchable; bolstered by frenetic stylisation and dedicated performances.
James McAvoy has transformed from a great little supporting member of the Brit TV show Shameless into a big Hollywood player, with titles like Atonement, Wanted and X-Men making him a household name (In fact, March 2013 must be James McAvoy month, what with the back-to-back releases of Welcome to the Punch and Trance). Yet you can see why he initially balked at the idea of taking the lead in Boyle’s latest feature, and only agreed to it once he had read all the way through the twists and turns to the end of the script. An entertaining character actor, he does his best with the amnesiac art auctioneer, Simon.
Indeed it would have been very interesting to see McAvoy reunited with Michael Fassbender once again (and in advance of their Professor X vs. Magneto conflict in the upcoming sequel to X-Men: First Class) as was originally planned by casting Fassbender in the role of antagonist robber Franck. As it was, though, they never did risk that kind of audience confusion, instead casting the great French actor Vincent Cassel (Brotherhood of the Wolf, La Haine, Black Swan), a man who simply does not get enough decent roles, and who often feels a cut above what even this script has to offer.
In between the two there is Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist Elizabeth, a sometimes vulnerable, sometimes surprisingly powerful character who clearly has more to her than you might initially assume. Whilst Dawson has been quite hit and miss in some of her career choices (for every Death Proof there’s a Killshot; for every Seven Pounds there’s a Fire with Fire) but she does reasonably well here, juggling innocence with a hard-to-pinpoint aura of mystery about her, itself simmering with an undercurrent of undeniably sexuality that is peaked with a Sharon Stone-worthy reveal, which, whilst not quite fitting in with the rest of the proceedings, does have some value in pure gratuitous surprise.
The script doesn’t really call upon the trio to do anything other than throw themselves head-first into the roles; commit to them however unpredictable or unbelievable the story and character developments are – and the three of them are game enough to do precisely that.
Another big plus point comes with the score by Boyle’s long-term musical collaborator Rick Smith (from Underworld), who worked with him on several of his early features – including Trainspotting and The Beach – and reunited with him for the superb Sunshine score, before their memorable work together for the London Olympics. Credit to Boyle for sticking to the acquired taste of the electronic beats of Underworld, even for the Olympics, and it’s great to see them back on-board doing the score here, which remains a high point in the feature, perfectly matching up to the frenetic style of Boyle’s vision.
If you’re prepared to accept the fact that Trance may not be quite as deep and enthralling as the taglines would suggest – that it isn’t Danny Boyle’s answer to Inception; that it’s merely an engaging but throwaway little heist flick in the same vein as anything from Guy Ritchie’s canon – then you’ll likely find it an entertaining way to spend a little over an hour-and-a-half of your time. Perhaps a more considered plot, some less predictably unpredictable characterisations, and some more thought when it comes to a meaningful conclusion would have given this a decent shot at a forging a lasting impression, but, as is, it’s fun, flashy and frenetic, utterly throwaway thriller. Psychological mind-games always make for an interesting starting point, it’s just a shame that this thriller didn’t capitalise on the potential, instead going for style over substance and twists over thoughtfulness. Enjoyably fluffy.
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