A flawed thriller with bursts of brilliance throughout
[This review was originally posted last week for the UK release of Trance. It has been reposted to coincide with the US release of the film.]
From 127 Hours to Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle is one of the most versatile talents working in the art form today. Trance reminds me most of Boyle's humble Trainspotting; an ode to the city streets and hoodlum culture that modern England finds itself in. I went into Trance expecting Boyle's scalpel of style to slice into this new plane of choice: the psychological landscape of modern-day, thriller-filled London. What I got was a film that captures the essence of the great city but, perhaps, has too many problems to be considered anything above functional.
In the end, Trance fails to deliver to communicate its messages beyond simplistic methods. This clever film just isn't clever enough.
Trance tells the story of Simon (James McAvoy), an art auctioneer with a hidden past and dangerous addictions. Simon takes part in an inside job to rob a Goya painting by the name of 'Witches In The Air' with the aid of underworld legionnaire Franck (Vincent Cassel). Things go awry and, in the fray, Simon's memory is shattered into pieces along with the location of the painting. Franck has Simon forced through torture before reluctantly pushing him upon Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotist who might be able to crack Simon's mind and stitch together the pieces.
Boyle's absolute flexibility when it comes to genres just shines through Trance. He's able to glue himself to an adventure set in India, a thriller about a man with his hand stuck in the rock and a sci-fi journey into the very heart of the sun. What's apparent in the first few minutes of Trance is that this flexibility hits you in the face. From a few beats of story you get that Boyle understands how to build the machinery of a thriller. Like a ticking clock set in motion, so many elements are lined up and then fall like dominoes throughout the opening scenes. There's a sense of relish in the carnage that's constructed here but this bombastic opener just fails to ever be followed by anything equally engaging.
Boyle's vision of a crime-drenched London is also a delightful spit into the eyes. While what's actually taking place on screen is often marred by the, at times, cookie-cutter dialogue and poor characterization, the film is still touched with that Danny Boyle vision. I can honestly say that London in this film is better shot, and made more of a character itself, than in Skyfall. From the punches of rain into the ground to the stylized lighting to the often breath-taking mesh of colors and scenery, Trance offers a window into the sensory symphony of London's grand architecture and its cobbled blood. The cinematography is just brimming with absolute class and personality Trance is undoubtedly Boyle's greatest visual creation.
Some set-pieces, especially those set in Simon's mind, are often captivating and genuinely gripping. While none of it is truly real, these scenes often have more impact than what takes place in the film's 'real' world. When Dawson's character pulls Simon into his own mind, that's filled with visions and scrapbook scrapings of his life, there's a real sense of exploration. The film's score, by Rick Smith, just adds that extra bit of sensory connection that makes the psychological elements of Trance just delicious to watch as they unfold. It's a shame then that the surrounding body of the film just fails to truly hold any barebones bite of attention.
The writing, as said before, is often downright muddled and seems to borrow too much from too broad of influences. At one point one character just says "Put me out of my misery" and, in another instance, there's a few death threats and then everything kisses and makes up. The film's lack of connective tissue between scenes, characters seem to completely forget motivations and relationships, means that some plot elements seem to appear and disappear like the memories Trance is trying to dive into. It doesn't help either that there's some structural problems with the way the story always seems to be just waiting until its moved onwards, scenes often feel lost or just filler. To add to this sense of disconnection, the film's tone seems to nosedive at random times with some later plot twists, especially in the third act, unfolding at a snail's pace and never gathering a punch. The film's main problem, if anything, is that it never gains a sense of momentum and the climax is genuinely just quite dull and seems to rush itself into saying something that ultimately means nothing.
James 'Blue Eyes' McAvoy pretty much steals the cerebral spotlight. His descent into Simon's mental conundrums is, at times, captivating to watch simply because of McAvoy's energy. With Welcome to the Punch out it's interesting to see, for most of the film, McAvoy portray a tortured and often vulnerable soul who must find strength from literally within. Cassel's portrayal of Franck is quite stale to be honest, there's never a sense of power given to his place in the film. Likewise the film's other supporting cast just fail to connect on the same level of McAvoy. Dawson also sometimes plays her role too straight and her line delivery is especially quite jumbled throughout. Her delivery of the film's final beats of twists seemingly brings the film, at a time of engagement, into an almost carnival display of disconnection.
Trance is a confused film filled with contrasts from delight to disillusion, from thrilling set-pieces to dry dialogue. Trance's main problem stems from both its momentum and dishwater storytelling. The visuals and McAvoy's performance truly elevate this film into a beautiful and tight slice into the caverns of the urban-sprawled mind. In the end, Boyle's post-Olympic thriller simply fails to have a razor sharp ability to deliver its own narrative; it simply isn't clever enough to keep up with itself.