What do a Hitchcockian crime thriller, a harrowing drug addiction drama, a terrifying zombie horror movie, a cerebral science fiction odyssey, a Bollywood-inspired romance, a visceral true-life survival story, and an Olympics opening ceremony have in common? They all bear the mark of the great Danny Boyle.
Boyle, a merchant of style and a master of seamlessly blending genres, is a filmmaker who has an innate ability to take what you know about a particular tired genre and make it fresh again merely by adding his spin to it. Narrative and thematically speaking, movies like Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine, Trainspotting, 127 Hours and 28 Days Later couldn’t be more varied from each other yet they each possess the energy and style that are unmistakably Boyle. Even his least successful movies – the forgettable Leonardo DiCaprio adventure The Beach and the thoroughly mediocre Ewan McGregor-Cameron Diaz dark comedy A Life Less Ordinary – are peppered with moments of brilliance.
Trance, Boyle’s 10th feature, is his take on the heist movie and, more notably, that most revered of genres, film noir. All the trappings of noir are here: the anti-hero, the femme fatale, amnesia, the unreliable narrator, shifting points-of-view etc. But despite these heavy elements, the film is Boyle’s lightest in over a decade – a slickly shot (by frequent collaborator cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), exercise in style that liberally borrows from films like Vertigo, Inception and Memento, yet true to Boyle fashion, results in something vastly entertaining.
The setup is this: Simon (James McAvoy) is an auctioneer who teams up with a team of robbers, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), to steal a famous Goya painting in the middle of an auction. The robbery is meticulously researched and planned to the hilt. But as it usually does in movies like this, something goes wrong. During the robbery, there’s a misunderstanding, Simon is knocked out and the painting goes missing.
When he wakes up two weeks later in the hospital, Simon is approached by Franck and team about the whereabouts of the painting but there’s a problem. He has no memory of the incident and the location of the painting. After torture proves futile, Franck ascertains that the only way to get the answer out of Simon is through hypnosis. Hiring hypnotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to coax the answers out of him, in exchange for a cut of the profits, Franck and team expect answers to be forthcoming, but as the saying goes, some memories aren’t meant to be unlocked.
Written by Jon Ahearne and John Hodge, who most notably collaborated with Boyle on Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, the plot of Trance is akin to a Chinese Finger Trap. It’s useless to try and figure out the twists and turns of the mystery because the more you try, the more convoluted it’s going to get. In fact, if you really dwell on the plot, the whole thing sort of falls apart. The key is to relax, and let Boyle guide you through the maze that is Hodge’s script and take the film for what it is – a diversion.
For their parts, both McAvoy and Cassel deliver fine work as the prey and predator (or vice versa) that set the plot in motion but its Dawson who registers the most in one of her finest performances to date. If Boyle is the film’s creator, she is its heart. When we first met Elizabeth, we wonder why this beautiful, seemingly good-natured woman is willing to get herself tangled with these criminals. But as the film progresses, motives unravel and perspectives shift, Dawson’s role becomes integral to the root of the mystery, and her raw performance that’s equally enthralling and seductive, is a big reason why we remain, entranced, so to speak.