What is Danny Boyle on about? The British director's movies used to have both substance and the fast cuts and high style that he's known for—Trainspotting, 28 Days Later—but they've been sliding downhill, the stories gradually being eclipsed by cinematic and cinematographic pyrotechnics.
Not that there's anything wrong with a good entertaining explosion or scare or heartstring-tug, and Boyle has range enough to pull this off: the science fiction thriller Sunshine posed interesting questions about duty; Slumdog Millionaire, for its deficiencies, was a crowd-pleaser; and 127 Hours gave James Franco an opportunity to prove he can actually act, provided one arm is pinned beneath a boulder.
But after watching Trance, I'm scared he's stopped worrying about pesky things like stories and characters altogether and just started waving shiny objects (guns, skylines, naked people) in the audience's direction as a distraction. Trance is a manic glassy nightmare of a film, or rather, a manic glassy nightmare of a pastiche, with way too many films crammed into its 101 minutes. It's a graphic shoot-em-up. Also an intellectual thriller, the sort that tries to be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but winds up just being one of those movies that jumps out from behind the couch and yells, surprise! It was all a dream, maybe?
Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer with a high-stakes gambling problem who conspires with some art thieves (led by the eternally-creepy Vincent Cassel as Frank) to steal a Goya painting and pay off his mountain of debt. There are altogether too few films about art theft, so this premise seems promising—that is, until Simon gets knocked on the head by Frank and forgets where he left the painting.
So naturally, he goes to hypnotist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), wearing a wire so the goons in the van out front can hear what he says while he's under, and tells her he lost his keys. It quickly becomes clear that she can help him find both his keys and what he's actually looking for, and he begins to trust her—so much so that he becomes obsessed with her. But then, so does Frank.
Cue also a blurring of reality and a hypnosis-induced hallucination that's so confusing I'm not totally sure Boyle knows where the line between the two is. Who is in league with whom? Where's the painting? Does anyone care anymore? Is it really necessary to have this much grisly imagery plus plenty of slow pans across various angles of Dawson's naked body and McAvoy's bare backside in this movie?
The acting, of course, is terrific: Dawson, Cassel, and McAvoy all think they're in a much better film than they actually are, which is maybe for the best, as it's Trance's performances that keep it from sinking entirely into the mud. But the critical metaphors are almost too easy: like the painting they're all ostensibly looking for, this movie lacks a core: it's a gilded frame without a heart, or art; it wants to hypnotize us into thinking it's terrific, since the truth is too hard to bear—you get the idea.