Film Review: Trance

Danny Boyle reworks familiar tropes—stolen art, expedient amnesia and the ever-titillating love triangle—into a stylish, diverting thriller.

Highly entertaining if largely improbable, Trance has all the elements of a three-star psychological thriller: an original idea complemented by a witty script, imaginative direction and appealing cast, and enough sex and violence to keep us from thinking too hard about plot twists. Danny Boyle shot the film during breaks from his ongoing chores as artistic director of the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and his twisty, tony mash-up takes us once more on a magical mystery tour of London, if those adjectives apply to the movie’s delightfully disorienting mix of high art, low crime and erotic psychology.

The fun is following the story as it unfolds, needless to say, but the setup is this: Simon (James McAvoy), an associate at an auction house, has got himself deep into debt, so much so that he schemes with Franck (Vincent Cassel), an opportunistic gangster, to steal Goya’s masterpiece Witches in the Air, which has come on the bloc. The heist goes wrong, Simon suffers a knock on the head that causes amnesia, and the painting disappears. Franck and his boys (Danny Sapani, Matt Cross and Wahab Sheikh) attempt to jumpstart Simon’s memory with some old-fashioned torture, without success. So they turn to hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to employ more subtle methods of extraction. If she can crack Simon’s subconscious to find where he hid the painting (assuming he has hidden the painting), everybody benefits: Franck and friends get the Goya, Elizabeth gets a cut of its illicit sale, and Simon gets to live. Or maybe not. And why is a nice professional woman like Elizabeth slumming with underworld thugs and an amateur art thief, anyway?

Trance could be likened to several recent films, most readily Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters (art theft, love triangle, double-cross) and Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects (psychology, love triangle, double-cross). But Boyle is a restless filmmaker, moving effortlessly from the horror sci-fi of 28 Days Later to the epic Bollywood-inspired Slumdog Millionaire to the harrowing biopic 127 Hours, and Trance harkens back to his first feature, Shallow Grave, with its edgy black humor and fresh take on familiar film tropes. (In fact, Boyle called upon screenwriter John Hodge, who wrote Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, to work with Joe Ahearne on adapting the latter’s 2001 teleplay for the big screen.) Trance will certainly evoke comparison to Christopher Nolan’s Memento, since both deal with amnesia and revenge, and even with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the mother of all psychological murder mysteries, and one that, like Boyle’s, depends on distortions and deceptions both real and imagined.

McAvoy, who delivers his lines with his native Scottish accent, and Cassel, who delivers his with his native French accent, make good foils for each other and reliable fools for the seductive Dawson, who lays down the bare essentials of art history in more ways than one. The unlikely ménage à trois appear to be enjoying the caper even as it rapidly unravels, and bring the same kind of complexity to their characters as Boyle does to the narrative. Nobody in Trance is what he or she seems to be, and all end up somewhere other than they imagined—that’s standard stuff, for sure—but in this case, watching them become tangled up in their own psyches is as amusing as guessing who will end up with the MacGuffin. Or shall we say, the MacGoyan.