After taking home the Oscar for Best Director in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire, Mr. Boyle confined his exuberantly odd style to a very small film in 127 Hours. The film focuses on, surprisingly enough, the 127 hours that mountain climber Aron Ralston spent trapped under a rock before cutting his arm off and stumbling to rescue. For the director of Trainspotting, a highly acclaimed film that features the many daydream and nightmare sequences of heroin addicts, this was certainly a step down.
But, rest assured, Trance is filled with many a camera trick and surreal image. After all, half of it takes place inside one of the main character’s heads. Or at least, that’s what I believe was going on. Let’s start at the beginning. Well, at the first beginning of the film, that is. Yes, it is that confusing and the point is well worth belaboring.
James McAvoy plays Simon, a sharp-dressed, but somewhat effete art auctioneer. Unfortunately, Simon is also a compulsive gambler. As a result, the film opens with Simon describing the auction house’s precautions to the audience and to a ring of criminals in a breathy, but elated voice. Together, Simon and the criminals conspire in order to snatch an artwork by Goya that just happens to be valued at twenty million dollars.
Sadly, the heist goes wrong. After all, does a heist ever go perfectly according to plan? Not because of the Ukrainian ex-special forces security team or the many high tech security systems. No, those happen to be dispatched with some ease thanks to a baseball bat and a very large criminal. Instead, betrayal undermines the genius plan. For some odd reason, Simon steals from his own compatriots. Simon hides the artwork, but is hit on the head by one of the thieves in an unfortunate accident. As a result, he suffers amnesia and is unable to remember where the painting is hidden.
Enter Rosario Dawson as Dr. Lamb, a trained hypnotherapist. And thus begins the central conceit of the film: using hypnotism to locate where the painting is in Simon’s head.
After all, only Simon knows where this treasure is. And only Simon can tell us that secret...if he wishes to. From there, the plot descends into a dark swirl of dream sequences, gory violence and extremely revealing nudity. But is it worth all of the furious editing and crescendos of electronic dance music? Sadly, no.
Trance tries to be far too clever for its own good and ends up falling flat on its face. Like your young and precocious nephew’s favorite joke, it quickly wears out its welcome and soon grows grating. Unfortunately for a movie that screams “plot twist” with every scene, your faithful reviewer quickly guessed the ending of the film in the first twenty minutes after a very poor line delivery by Ms. Dawson. A word of advice, Mr. Boyle: when both of your actors smile revealingly at the camera after what you are attempting to play off as a throwaway line, the jig is up. Even more unfortunately, the plot twist is not that meaningful. It feels strained, uninteresting, and preachy.
After all, Trance is supposed to be an art heist movie that turns into a psychological thriller…and then suddenly after nearly an hour and ten minutes, it transmogrifies yet again into a film about female empowerment. Suddenly, these men are no longer violent criminals, but instead characters in a play about feminism. And not even a very good one at that. The actors do a passable job, but in this film their only real task is to alternate between angry rants and burning holes in the camera with passionate stares. Hardly the most nuanced of performances. Sadly, the impressive cast of McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel are wasted on such shallow characters lost in the topsy-turvy plot.
Despite the script, the direction and cinematography is quite impressive. Although too bright, austere, and sterile for my taste, it fulfills its purpose. The viewer is unnerved as the camera swoops through oddly perfect sets meant to represent the interior of Simon’s mind. The visual clues to the plot are brilliant as symbolic packages melt into piles of bloody gauze and one particular character’s severed head delivers a soliloquy which would make anyone’s heart race.
Unfortunately, all of these images are overwhelmed by a soundtrack that would much better fit a crowded dance hall in the wee hours of Saturday morning than a theater. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that one of the main characters lives over a night club. But, the music appears only when the characters are far away from this apartment. Odd.
To be quite honest, the soundtrack is far from the strangest thing about this movie. That dubious honor falls to the incessant product placement. For some reason, Simon’s subconscious loves iPads. His memories are represented as embedded in iPads…no, I’m not making that up. Last I checked, Steve Jobs did not manage to cure amnesia.
Sadly, there isn’t an App for that. The ending also features an iPad very prominently in an attempt to force the audience to think about memory, choice and even love. It’s even stranger on screen, I promise you. Sadly, you will not have a conversation about the ambiguous conclusion as you walk out of the theater. Most likely, you will discuss the multiple scenes of full frontal nudity and the strange preoccupation of multiple characters on pubic hair. Of course that presumes that you and your companion or companions will be able to get past the intensely difficult nature of a discussion about pubic hair. In case you haven’t realized yet, this is not a family film and should you suggest it at the next holiday get together, you will likely never be invited back.
Yes, pubic hair is a fairly significant plot point. All in all, Trance is a movie that’s far too quirky and queer to really deliver a message or an entertaining plot. But, at least it tries to be creative, which is more than can be said for most films that make it to the screen these days. I’ll give it a six out of ten and call it a day.
-- Thomas J.P. Harrington