A film review by Craig J. Koban May 22, 2013


2013, R, 101 mins


James McAvoy as Simon  /  Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth  /  Vincent Cassel as Franck  /  Danny Sapani as Nate  /  Matt Cross as Dominic  /  Wahab Sheikh as Riz  /  Mark Polmitore as Lemaitre

Directed by Danny Boyle  /  Written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge

Danny Boyle’s new psychological thriller TRANCE deserves worthy comparisons to INCEPTION for how it both teases and titillates us with its reality bending narrative.  Although not nearly as conceptually brilliant or grandly staged as Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, TRANCE nonetheless scores huge points for being a stylish, sexy, well performed, and highly energetic crime caper that keeps you involved and guessing, even when it perhaps engages in one too many plot twists for its own good.  It deals with the nature of memories, dreams, and one person’s desperate attempts to reconstruct who he is and how he fits into his world when his own sense of self and purpose has been clouded by amnesia.  

If anything, TRANCE primarily exists to warp your brain, and it  takes great relish in doing so. 

Boyle’s film – which is, oddly enough, a remake of a 2003 British TV movie – opens with an intoxicating hook of an innocent man apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time, but this later proves to be an effective bit of bait and switch.  Simon (the always playfully exuberant James McAvoy) is a deputy art auctioneer who specializes in the history and theory of priceless works of art from the past.  In the opening stages of the film he is brutally attacked and injured while attempting to stop a ruthless thief, Franck (Vincent Cassel, radiating coldly detached menace) from making off with an irreplaceable work by Goya.  Franck did manage to get away, but without the painting, which Simon managed to smuggle away and hide, but his injuries have left him with short-term amnesia.  Nonetheless, the media Simon as a hero of the art world, even though his motives are later revealed to be rather impure. 



You see, Simon has a skeleton in his closet.  He’s a compulsive gambler with an incalculably large debt.  So, before the attempted Goya robbery, he actually made a deal with Franck to assist him with nabbing the painting, making Simon the secret inside man of the caper.  Yet, Simon can’t remember much from the robbery, which makes revealing to Frank – even under sickening torture – where on earth he hide the painting.  This is where the film gets even more interesting:  Simon and Franck mutually decide that the best course of action is to send Simon to a specialized hypnotist, Elizabeth Lamb (an alluring and assured Rosario Dawson), who will attempt to use her skills to allow Simon to recover his knowledge of the painting’s location.  Things get very complicated for everyone when it appears that Elizabeth may or may not have selfish motives of her own. 

Part of the swift confidence displayed in TRANCE is in how deals with the usual accoutrements of the heist thriller and then radically goes beyond them in its exploration of reality versus illusion.  As the film develops layer upon layer of intrigue, one begins to ask more gripping questions:  Is Simon’s amnesia real or a bluff?  How loyal is he towards Franck?  Moreover, does Elizabeth’s brain-descrambling techniques hurt or assist Simon?  Is she really coaxing out real memories out of him, or is she cunningly implanting new ones to send Franck’s goons astray?  The film’s cerebral focus is refreshing, considering that so many other similar caper genre films are all about physical action and thrills; TRANCE euphorically begs us in the audience to sift through – much like Simon – the haze of unreality to make sense of it all.  It’s especially tricky, but rewarding, to have a film progress to the point where you really have no idea which character is to be trusted and relied upon. 

I’ve been pretty tough on Danny Boyle in past reviews.  Often, I have found his penchant for hyper-caffeinated visuals, propulsive editing and blaring musical cues to largely distract us from the real dramatic focus of his films (see 127 HOURS).  Yet, like early films on his resume, Boyle’s frequently exhilarating stylistic hubris actually compliments the themes and story in TRANCE.  Shot by Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle (he won for Boyle’s Best Picture winner, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and has shot nearly all of his recent films), TRANCE has the frequent scattershot visual sheen that kind of mirrors Simon’s anxiety-filled mission to reconstitute his memories.  The oblique compositions, vivacious use of color, and ultra-brisk pacing and momentum of the film makes it feel like we are taking the same mentally skewed journey of its main protagonist.  TRANCE is a full on rush of style, but not to the point of being obtrusively disorienting. 

Thankfully, the performances don’t get lost in all of Boyle’s artistic thunder.  The always-agreeable James McAvoy has a decidedly tricky role to pull off here, beginning the film as a lone innocent babe in the woods that is later revealed to be a complicit criminal and then later a fairly violence-prone aggressor in his own right.  Vincent Cassel can played French gangsters with an axe to grind until the proverbial cows come home, but he shouldn’t be shunned for embodying these roles with such an icy precision.  The real performance standout is perhaps Dawson, who – like McAvoy – has a densely layered character that is not precisely as advertised when she’s first introduced.  The way she transforms from a nurturing doctor to Simon and then…to something else that I won’t reveal…shows how adept Dawson is at dialing into complex roles that don’t necessarily go down obligatory love interest paths. 

For all of TRANCE’s, shall we say, wanton trippiness, the film does make some categorical missteps.  For starters, there  just might be too much twisting and turning of character motives and allegiances here to the point of head shaking.  The climax of the film, regrettably, does not hold up as well and the preceding two-thirds of the film that got us there.  The final sections of the story have just too much frenetic action and plot manipulations going on and is based on a series of betrayals upon betrayals that’s more frustrating and confusing to experience than exciting.  When TRANCE does reveal its secrets, you almost feel like you need a road map explaining the whole journey.  Lastly, for a film with such a dark and macabre tone, the final scene is kind of annoyingly playful and upbeat, which could have been excised altogether.  Yet, TRANCE mostly overcomes these deficiencies on the level of its sheer entertainment value, and Boyle proves here to be an adept and deranged ringmaster of it all

  H O M E