The setup for Trance, the new release from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) is tantalizingly delicious. High-end art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) cues us in to the ins and outs of the security necessary to protect near-priceless works of art from the would-be thugs out there with enough “muscle and nerve” to dare to burst into an auction house and steal a painting. You can devise all the protocols you want to combat the best-laid plans of the greedy scoundrels, but each side’s efforts remain easy prey to the chaos of chance, the human element in the equation.
In Trance, it seems, that element would be Simon. He’s the inside man for a crew led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), one of those suave Euro-types who mixes charm and the threat of violence in unequal measure, that has executed the perfect plan to steal Goya’s “Witches in the Air.” Things pop off without much of a hitch, until Simon forces Franck’s hand in front of a pair of auction house guards and Franck cold-cocks Simon with the butt of his gun. There’s been a switch and only Simon knows where the painting is, but now, because of the head injury, Simon can’t remember where it is and no amount of torture will unlock the secret (lord knows, Franck and his crew give it their best shot). So, Franck sends him off to meet with an unforgettable hypnotherapist named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) who immediately susses out the situation and works her way into the deadly game of memory-retrieval.
We should all be forgiven for rushing to compare Trance to the Christopher Nolan one-two punch of Memento and Inception.
Forget worrying about the similarities, because I think Boyle welcomes such thoughts. Trance feels like Boyle daring to enter into those hallowed frames of reference, while also dancing along the outskirts of his own early projects like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting — but he’s got a few new tricks up his sleeve.
Money can be a crutch for filmmakers. The ones who scraped by in the beginning — shooting with small crews in their homes, using craft and guile to create the images in their heads — then find success and have studios throw dollars at them and, well, that creative sense goes right out the window. A choice few, though, take the money and develop a critical and conceptual framework to expand the scale without sacrificing the craft and ingenuity. Nolan’s in that club, and Boyle’s hanging out in the room as well.
The concept behind Trance is no less intricate in its fashion than Inception. Forgoing the dream within a dream within a dream architecture, Boyle steals the entrancing power of suggestion planted in the mind, not the waking or the unconscious per se, rather the hazy netherworld of the hypnotic state. Oh, what tricks we might play on one another there? And play, he does. Boyle drops bread crumbs with one hand and picks them up with the other all at once, as if he’s under hypnosis himself. Everything else fades away.
But none of this sleight of hand would matter without the cast, and his three leads are second to none, each of them working at the top of their games. McAvoy is born to saunter through such rich material. He’s as clever a performer as we have working right now, recalling Ewan McGregor here more than anyone else, but Simon belongs to McAvoy’s roguish gallery in the same way that he now owns the young Charles Xavier of X-Men: First Class. For all our familiarity with him, he’s never just “James McAvoy” when he’s onscreen; there’s always this character, the one right here, right now.
Cassel, as I said earlier, creates a blend of charm and menace, but the menace here is understated. He’s a bad man, but never over the top. There’s the sense that he might not be as willing to resort to violence, and that humanity serves both the character and the overall story.
We have to believe in the core humanity of everyone onscreen at all times, which leads to Dawson. She’s caught in the trickiest role of the three because the whole film is about discovering her motivations. Elizabeth Lamb is the X-factor that upsets the apple cart, overturning expectations for Simon, Franck and the audience. She has to keep us entranced and she does without missing a beat.
Prepare to fall under the spell time and again. (R) Grade: A
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