dir: Danny Boyle
Trance. Trance. Trance. Trance isn’t the film you might think it is.
It's definitely nothing to do with trance music, in case you were worried.
It’s probably more accurate for me to say that it wasn’t the flick I thought it was.
I went into this expecting one thing, and I got a whole heap of others thrown at me, though I walked into it remembering one or two things about Danny Boyle.
He may have won Oscars, and directed the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics, but you have to remember that this is the same game who made Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
Yes, you can argue about A Life Less Ordinary almost destroying the cinematic medium for all time, erasing the good films out there from the last century, but he remains a director who enjoys a good shock.
Trance is a fairly low-budget (looking) but stylish movie about something fairly high-concept: human memory, and how malleable it might be.
It's a bit of a scary concept that usually plays out in a science fiction setting; predating Blade Runner but that's a granddaddy example of the genre all the same. This flick here isn't sci-fi, but it is a bit out there. It requires us to suspend our disbelief a little bit higher than usual, a bit more effort on our part. It also manages to twist and turn in a manner that is unpredictable and nasty, which is a rare surprise for me, or at least to me.
Simon (James McAvoy) is a cocky, smug little shit, which is a tremendous departure from all the other smug, cocky little shits the actor playing him often plays. He seems to be working for one of those auction houses that help direct the currents of wealth by seeing how many more torrents of money can be directed to Great Art. You know, the way that a painting worth several millions can, at auction, become worth several times more, immediately making the painting look way nicer than it did half an hour previous.
On the block is a painting by Goya, being something with witches floating in the air. Simon gives us, as we watch the setup for the auction, and the setup for something nastier, a voiceover explaining the procedures in place at the auction house that are meant to safeguard the lives of the staff in the face of an armed robbery. Don't be a hero. It's just money. Comply meekly with all orders. Just go along with all of it.
Right from the start, whether it's the snarky tone or the other glimpses we get of Simon's profligate life, we know that something is going to go down during the auction, and that Simon's in on it, the smug shit.
The problem with plans is that plans rarely work out exactly, since they're not mathematical equations, and, oh, they involve humans, don't they. Something goes very wrong during the 'heist', which is always the most exciting part of any heist movie, which sees Simon end up in a coma, the poor bastard.
Months of recovery. Probably had to give up coffee for a while. We even see the surgery where they reduce the swelling on his poor brain.
As if that's not bad enough, when he finally returns home, he sees that his car has been destroyed. And his house has been taken apart by people looking for something, something probably important.
And then, adding both insult and injury to injury, when Simon meets up with the same chaps that seemed to be involved in the Goya heist, instead of making him a cup of tea and asking him how he's doing, and then feigning interest during his answer, they start torturing him! Fingernails, right off!
These continental types; it's just not cricket. Their leader, Franck (Vincent Cassel), is clearly ruthless, but he's not an idiot about it. Sure, he could happily snip off all of Simon's pink bits if he thinks it will get him what he wants, but he is at least intelligent enough to know that torture only gets you so far if someone doesn't, cannot remember something that they really want to remember, even with all the incentives in the world to do so.
That's Simon's problem. He can't remember what he did with the painting because of the severe blow to the head he received during the robbery. That the severe blow came from Franck is not something he's going to quibble over. Franck is a decisive man. He needs Simon relatively in one piece until something can be done to recover that memory.
Which is why they resort, get this, to hypnosis. Hypnosis! The last refuge of lazy hack - fearful screenwriters everywhere. They randomly allow Simon to pick a hypnotist, and he randomly picks Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), with whom he commences sessions in the pursuit of the location of the painting.
Of course, there are certain difficulties, in that he can't tell the apparently legendary hypnotist about what he's looking for specifically, because, you know, there should be like a million cops looking for something worth 20 million pounds. Sticky situation. Plus, the goons led by Franck, or should that be Franck and his goons? can't trust that Simon, when he's in a hypnotist-induced Trance (get the title?) won't blurt details about the theft or their part in it, so they compel him to wear a wire.
Of this situation, one that sounds highly implausible, the only bit I had any difficulty with was the address of Dr Elizabeth Lamb's office. They clearly show that she has her hypnotist's practice on Harley Street in London. You know, that famous section of Harley Street devoted only to the most respected hypnotists in all of Britain, which is just next to the phrenologists and the voodoo priests?
Yeah, that one. Look, that isn't the most implausible bit (probably to most people), but it did make me smile.
This Dr Lamb is pretty cluey, and she figures out that Simon is in trouble, and what the trouble happens to be. The Hippocratic Oath, which apparently applies to hypnotists as well, compels her to interject herself into the action, as she becomes a strange intermediary between Simon and the goon squad, even as she plays out an agenda no-one could reasonably guess at.
Really, there are plenty of twists and turns to this story, some twists that are visible, some that come out of nowhere, but the biggest twist for me was who the main character, who the protagonist of this story, really is. Everyone likes to think they’re the main character of every story, but they don’t always know who has the power. Simon’s only apparent power is that as long as the painting is still missing, he’s needed. Franck’s power is that he has no problem killing people to get what he wants. Elizabeth’s power is that she’s played by Rosario Dawson, and she knows how to hypnotise people, and, for some reason, everyone accepts that she’s the only solution to their 20 million pound problem.
It’s not a pleasant film, that’s for sure, though there’s plenty of nudity which you would think would make things more pleasant. This is a dark flick, but it’s not exploitation-type stuff, and the mean streak a mile wide it exemplifies is the same kind of ‘people deep down are pretty monstrous’ mean streak from Shallow Grave, all those years ago, a film which I still remember fondly despite its utter ruthlessness, or maybe because of it.
There are tricks being played on the various characters, and tricks being played on the audience, but the nastiest surprise is nothing any of us could have seen coming which unfortunately makes perfect sense considering the forces at play. I won’t spoil the ending, what kind of a monster would I be, but I will say it was completely over the top even for this kind of flick. By ending, I’m referring to the ‘climax’, or the resolution, rather than how it ends. The very end is fine. The ‘resolution’ preceding the end is bonkers, and shonky, and possibly even a little shitty.
But it’s not creaky enough to wreck the flick for me. It’s an interesting thriller of its type, and unlike something like the ponderous and too-long Inception, it’s not showy, but at least it’s not relying on hours and hours of exposition to sell its unlikely premise. It just tells its nasty story, in a fleet and shameless manner.
7 times even if whole slabs of the characters’ actions at the end didn’t make sense, it didn’t seem to matter that much out of 10, and that’s not just because of a naked Rosario Dawson, okay?
“I have free will. Don’t I?” – if you have to ask… - Trance