A delightfully throwback thriller that's far more about crafting imagery than it is about anything you're particularly likely to give a shit about, like sensible or comprehensible plotting, how brains work, or, until its last surprisingly functional moments, character. But it's so gorgeous, I rarely minded.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Joe Ehearne and John Hodge
With Rosario Dawson (Elizabeth), James McAvoy (Simon), and Vincent Cassel (Franck)
Spoiler alert: moderate
To get it out of the way, Trance is a little goofy. In fact, it's a lot goofy, featuring probably the most anti-realist premise in a movie I've seen this year. There have been movies that have been more fantastic, of course, but nothing that asks you to accept a central idea so blatantly false and egregiously stupid about what purports, at first glance, to represent the actual world, and then tries to handwave its nonsense away with no more than a throwaway line that you'd not be unlikely to miss entirely and wouldn't believe if you did hear it.
Trance's success turns largely on how comfortable you are with gross misrepresentation of human cognition, and whether you can accept that 5% of people are so suggestible under hypnosis that their actions and memories, if not their base emotions, can be manipulated with a precision sufficient to make a complex thriller out of it. I mean it: The Manchurian Candidate is based on far more plausible foundations than Trance could ever dream of. The power of suggestion as wielded by our hypnotist in Trance rivals that of Imhotep or Dracula, who are, just to remind you, a mummy and a vampire, respectively.
I don't think I've seen hypnosis deployed as a plot device in an English-language movie with such an audible "fuck it" on the part of the screenwriters outside of MST3K fodder like 1956's The She Creature and 1964's Devil Doll. Those, ahem, classics are not exceeded in ridiculousness here only because no character in Trance is hypnotized so hard that they are physically transformed into a monstrous abomination with an implacable craving for the taste of ham. But I do give it, without reservation, a full ten out of ten Oldboys.
Relax... relax... now... SLEEEEP!
Trance begins with an art theft gone incredibly wrong. It's perhaps a little regrettable that the robbery is such a brief and uncomplicated affair; I went in with some expectations that Trance would have the elements of a proper heist film. It is, instead, solely an inciting incident. This is despite a rather involved opening monologue, related to us by our protagonist-of-sorts, Simon Newton, an art restorer and this particular inside job's inside man. He talks about the security measures taken at auction houses such as the one he works at, and the kind of character it requires to steal art. It's a monologue that ultimately serves to be entirely nonsensical in the overall context of the film, although it is, in itself, quite fine and entertainingly explicatory.
In any event, for good or ill, the heist itself wraps up within the film's first five to eight minutes. Remember Mark Renton's narration in Trainspotting? Remember how it was about what the film was about? Well, this isn't that.
But sure, I choose life.
The thieves' target is the Francisco Goya painting Witches In the Air. During the confusion, he winds up taking a shotgun butt to the noggin as a reward for being an asshole. However, despite his cranial handicap, Simon is successful in stealing the painting—indeed, so successful that, in a first act double-cross, he keeps it for himself, stealing it back right out from under his criminal boss's very nose.
And that's Simon's real trouble, because thanks to his highly plot-convenient, Earth-2 version of a brain injury, he loses, or represses, the memories of what he did in the heist's aftermath. Crucially, he cannot consciously recall what he has actually done with the painting—and when torture fails to avail his partners of the answers they seek, they see little alternative but to shrug their shoulders, buy into Simon's insane claims of simply forgetting where he put the damned thing, and, availing themselves of a bit of single-payer healthcare, they seek out Dr. Elizabeth Lamb, a licensed hypnotherapist. She becomes rapidly hip to the scheme, pledges to retrieve his lost memory, and interlopes her way into the gang as the sixth and now most indispensible partner.
Thus does a psychosexual thriller with twists ensue.
It's there to be appreciated.
And those twists are worth waiting for, because they're good, but even if they weren't you'd have to wait for them anyway, because plotwise Trance becomes an exercise in repetition and misdirection via a succession of dream and dreamlike sequences for what, in another film, and if we're being honest to a great degree in this film, could be described as an impressively saggy middle third.
It's wise, then, not to become too hung up on plot in the first place here, though it is the ordinary mode—and a fully justified mode—for watching a movie. Particularly a movie like this; is there a genre more driven by plot than the thriller?
However, though some half-baked themes of free will and agency do get tossed around in the dialogue (for about, like, thirty seconds), I grokked that the real point is not the story, which Trance only kind of has, but instead lights and colors set against a wall of sound courtesy Rick Smith, from British electronic band Underworld. And it's a damned well-taken point.
First, however, a word on the digital video: it can be a pain. Artifacts abound; there's a hint from the trailers that this is deliberate, but they're mainly an annoyance, never so impossible to ignore that one has to take them seriously as some kind of modern motif. I do realize that there are technical reasons that recommended digital for Trance, and perhaps the imagery I think is so lovely couldn't have been captured, or captured easily, upon film; but isn't it just as likely that Danny Boyle just likes shitty digital cameras? We've all seen 28 Days Later.
But, if I am wrong, and digital was absolutely integral, I apologize, because take any moment from Trance and odds are better than even that it will feature some amazing composition using color and light. Behold, then, a Menziesesque shot of tiny figures crushed by architecture, but rendered in neon red against an almost black and white cityscape beyond; a sodium-lit motorway rendered more as arteries in a void than a road; the Mirror Master's apartment; a moment of Brian De Palma red-white-and-blue; reflections fragmenting the frame into an almost unreadable mosaic; blue men making decisions in a blue room; and a guy walking around in a lavender hallway, just because it looks cool:
I LIKE PRETTY
Of course, it could have gone further. Everything outside the movie—the posters and the disc menu, hell, even the design of the blu-ray itself—not to even mention the crazy cartoon hypnosis upon which Trance relies—all downright promise that op art mesmery is going to supplement the popping colors. Sadly, other than the so-noted use of mirrors to break up images, that's never really in the offing. That's not just a failure, it's an actual damned shame, because they don't make weird art movies about preposterous hypnotic mind-control every day. Was it really too much to ask for a few bitchin' optical illusions?
Maybe so. Trance's biggest problem is a curious tension not between the film and the audience but between two conceptions of itself. Is it an art film? Or is it just a well-shot B-thriller with a throwback McGuffin? Or is it attempting both? Is it accomplishing either?
Should it star a digitally resurrected Jimmy Stewart? Does it count as a spoiler if I say yes?
The striking nature of the compositions in Trance surely suggest the former, and are the stuff of a Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, or Wachowski Bros. film. The editing in Trance is, regrettably, the stuff of a Danny Boyle film. It's not even bad; compare it to films edited badly in the quick-cut manner pioneered, inter alia, by Mr. Boyle, and you'll find nothing to complain about. But compare it to the masterful editing, replete with long takes both static and mobile, in Blow Out, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Speed Racer (oh, you heard me), and you'll see the issue. You are often allowed only to get a whiff of the brilliant design at work here, rather than forced to appreciate it by an appropriately totalitarian director.
Trance does not have brilliant editing; it has merely functional editing. The real problem with its cutting, aside from lacking an appropriate aesthetic self-appreciation, is that it forces you to apprehend the movie as far more plot-driven than it actually is (or, I suppose, is intended to be). While occasionally effective as a device to depict Simon's disorientation, and although it does provide the film's most active scenes a driving energy, Trance's montage is far too lazily conventional given the rigor of Boyle's arrangements in space. And this does impact the aesthetic appeal of the film, which is otherwise so very vast. (But to compliment the editing, I do like the use of hidden wipes—a page it does take from Speed Racer and a fine one at that.)
Trance has two masters, pure aesthetics and actual story, and proves the adage: it veers wildly from unmistakable signal to pretty noise in terms of what its never-interrupted style is possibly supposed to represent. Boyle by default indulges in a great deal of what must be subjective filmmaking, but the visuals are essentially identical when plot mechanics require us to move outside of Simon's broken psyche. Ultimately, you just have to accept that dutch angles and neat colors are just what this movie looks like; which is fine, if somewhat at cross-purposes with its attempts at zany scheming. So, then, are huge stretches of the middle third are devoted to fakeouts that further neither plot nor character and can, at best, be characterized as attempts to create paranoia. These digressions look too good to be rightly called annoying, yet are designed seemingly to actively degrade interest in the story itself, effectively saying, since the whole movie looks much the same, that any given scene could turn out to be pure fantasy, and at any time. This is actually sort of what happens, but it's not quite as bad as I make it sound.
And yet, for good or for ill, I was thoroughly reminded of Passion. That's this year's Brian De Palma movie, although I really wish it weren't.
At the risk of spoiling my Worst of 2013 list, Passion is on my Worst of 2013 list, currently occupying position no. 2. I did not review it because even its failure failed to interest me, but Passion is a truly terrible film, genuinely awful in every way but its master's capacity for mise-en-scene. Oddly enough, however, it is practically (even distressingly) identical to Trance in terms of its thriller mechanics; beyond that Passion also was willing to indulge in a heavy dose of color for its own sake; and it too had no qualm in using subjective visual techniques ubiquitously and entirely inappropriately. But where Passion offended (by using subjective filmmaking as a red herring of all things; and worse, by being immensely fucking boring), Trance largely delights. In part, it's because Trance pulls it off in the end. It must also be because even though Trance is completely unafraid to dick you around with dreamlike imagery, these sequences themselves are happening, even if only in Simon's head. The characters, too, although completely repellant in Passion (even to the extent of being poorly acted), take on just enough dimension here, thanks to slightly-better-than-competent dialogue and rather-better-than-serving performances, to retain your interest. It's a funny world, where the line between interminably dull and kind-of sort-of compelling can be so vanishly fine.
Or, perhaps Trance's story doesn't quite deserve the derogation I've given it. Once Trance inarguably regains its momentum in its final third, and rightly barrels to its gonzo conclusion, it is more than kind-of sort-of compelling. And, despite my shallow formalism, if I am honest, its narratively satisfactory conclusion rather made the film for me, when otherwise I could have written it off as a beautiful curio. When the final twists do happen, it's clear that people were thinking about them in every scene—note how a little acting tic by Rosario Dawson that, if you notice it, seems so odd for so much of the film and suddenly takes on meaning with the reveal. While it's not totally clear that they thought these twists through in a perfectly systemic manner, Trance's big sin may not be that it's a stupid movie, only, and so much more worthily, that it's a confusing one.
So, maybe, all those delirious, delightful colors are just Danny Boyle's way of sugarcoating the rewatch its slightly jacked story demands. If so, I can't say I don't appreciate it.
And you know what else I appreciate? Dawson's full-frontal nudity. I appreciate it a lot. Tens out of ten for everybody!
The real score: 8/10