Movie Review: Trance- Danny Boyle’s Psychological Twist on the Heist Genre Utilizes Trickery for Trickery’s Sake

TRASA-1067.DNGOne of the most elusive and subjective topics for cinema is the use of the mind and even though it’s a limitless entity in thought there is a fragile nature to it when it comes to memory and suggestibility. Using the fragility of the mind will undoubtedly enhance any mystery or thriller genre due to the unreliability of the narrated perspective, which is the case for Danny Boyle’s new film Trance. It seemed inevitable that notorious genre jumper director Danny Boyle would find his way to the famed Heist genre but in order to remain untraditional he added some psychological elements that he has already explored in previous films, most notably in Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. Boyle is like the modern British version of French director Louis Malle in the sense that he tackles genres in a “has been there and done that” attitude for his outlet of unadulterated storytelling. Trance is a demonstration of Danny Boyle at his technical best but also at his narrative worst attempting to shadow the simplicity of the script through a convoluted display of camera acrobatics, non-linear story design, and editing tricks. This stylish modern noir becomes so chaotically twisty that when it begins to messily unravel its tightly knitted core in the rushed third act the entire film spirals out of the director’s usual poise and control. None of this means that the process of getting to the point of weakness realization isn’t an exhilarating visual ride because Trance does indeed feature some of the most inventive work from his collaborative cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, thriller editor Jon Harris, and screenwriters John Hodge (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave) and Joe Ahearn. Danny Boyle filmed Trance on his off days from directing the 2012 Olympics and it’s difficult not to notice that his attention and creative force was monopolized and distracted. As a Danny Boyle film Trance is a slight disappointment in coherent and fully engaging storytelling but as a Heist film or psychological thriller it possesses enough creativity, technicality, and charm to be well above average. Imagine what this type of non-linear modern noir could have been if it was the only thing Boyle was working on at the time.

If Trance had been told from a straight perspective or in order the story wouldn’t seem as convoluted as it appears in the final product. Screenwriters John Hodge and Joe Ahearn invoke the disjointed and non-linear plot influence of filmmaker Nicholas Roeg demonstrating an ability to manipulate time and subjectivity as Roeg has done in films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing. Trance starts off as a traditional Heist picture that takes an intriguing but slightly convoluted turn into a violent, misogynistic, and duplicitous noir of surreal memory relapses and unknown motivations. At the basic level Trance is about art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) who conspires with gangster Franck (Vincent Cassel) to steal a Francisco Goya painting but loses his memory of where he hid the painting after a blow to the head. After torture and threats don’t make any headway into recovering Simon’s memory he is put through a series of hypnotherapy sessions with therapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to put the pieces of this puzzle back together. Of course not everything is at it seems and even though Danny Boyle goes to great lengths to disguise the tiniest of clues, including surreal deviations into the mind, there is obviousness to the overstated actions in the script. The script skips around frantically and takes three right turns for every left twist that ends up being more confusingly draining than purely entertaining. Usually Boyle is deeply focused on his story but it seems that with Trance he saw the opportunity to indulge in technical virtuosity, which doesn’t necessarily become an abhorrent distraction. However, despite these various criticisms it should be noted that while most of the script’s non-linear rotations aren’t completely necessary it certainly provides the best setup for the cinematic experimentation that follows. Even with masterfully executed films such as 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and Sunshine in his filmography, Boyle unleashes a cinematic arsenal unlike anything his previous films have fully explored.


Danny Boyle has what could be regarded as a pretentious filmmaking style but it’s that very unconventional nature to his creative choices that attracts us to his films. This time around with Trance the genre jumper clearly wanted his cinematic presentation to be the prime initiator into his trippy and twisty noir relying on the manipulations of the filmmaking medium to alter the audience’s usual security and traditional perspective. Boyle has concocted a genuine and thrilling piece of pulp cinema that utilizes the best of his technical team despite the flimsiness of the plot as a whole. The film’s delirious descent into subjective madness is complimented by the trickery of Anthony Dod Mantle’s marvelous cinematography that has his signature usage of reflective surfaces, acrobatic handheld movements, and titled angles. Sensory overload could describe the intensity of the visuals but its stylish and eccentric delivery keeps the thriller originally engaging as it unfolds. Editor Jon Harris takes the best of Mantle’s images and strings them together in a deliciously provocative exhibition that subtly hints at the bigger picture entirely. Considering the script ends up being a convoluted mess lacking any genuine depth it’s hard to say that the technical aspects of Trance actually compliment any intended message or purpose. However, what the cinematic displays do provide is an otherwise artistic involvement in what could have been a flimsy and unpersuasive. There is of course a great deal of Boyle’s penchant for excess throughout Trance but without it the film would have unraveled into a great deal of nothing instead of remaining a tightly knitted though rather unfulfilling thriller. As a director Boyle knows his way around the technical elements of film but he also knows how to work with actors extremely well and Trance showcases three actors utilizing some of their finest qualities.

Taking the lead as the conspiring inside man auctioneer is James McAvoy and under Boyle’s careful direction he brings out McAvoy’s ability to appear compellingly innocent while also deceivingly mysterious. Narrating through most of the film it becomes clear about a quarter way through that McAvoy’s Simon is not only unreliable but he’s also a bit of a deceptive charmer. After sitting through Trance it would become increasingly difficult to think of anyone else who could have carried this part combining tactful aggression and cerebral vulnerability as well as McAvoy did. Complimenting him in most scenes is Rosario Dawson as the elusively sexy but manipulative hypnotherapist Elizabeth who gives a performance of subtle complexity that no one could have imagined was possible for her. She has a grace on screen that comes naturally and without giving anything away she really could be considered the protagonist of the film as the third act comes to full realization. But really the momentous performance in Trance comes from French actor Vincent Cassel who plays the merciless Franck in breathtaking brutality and menacing composure. Though he doesn’t get the amount of screen time you would desire from the Mesrine actor he never disappoints once he’s there. All three of the core performers carry the audience through Boyle’s deceptive world of surrealism and crime while also successfully misleading them as to the final outcome. There is a bit of heightened realism in the performances but when dealing with subject matter that is all too elusive and subjective it’s what is needed to make all the tricks seems a bit more plausible.


For most Danny Boyle fans his latest mind trip disguised as a modern noir will be a tad disappointing in that it doesn’t have the clarity or depth that the stories he chooses usually portray. There is no moral to the story as with Millions or there is no deep societal criticism as there was with 28 Days Later but instead Trance is a typical Heist film with unconventional deviations. Boyle’s increasingly inventive usage of cinematic elements continues here with the help of Anthony Dod Mantle’s exceptional cinematography but the excess of the visual presentation is one of the biggest clues pertaining to the lack of depth and overall inventiveness in John Hodge and Joe Ahearn’s script. As it stands Trance is a visually engaging and exhilarating crime noir that will certainly intrigue you but that intrigue wears off once you contemplate the actual simplicity of what actually just occurred. While Boyle’s film work isn’t always consistent in narrative quality there is always a stylish presentation that keeps our attention transfixed on whatever he is capturing on the screen. Trance certainly isn’t close to being in Danny Boyle’s best overall films but it’s an inventive addition to his usual genre manipulation exercises that probably deserves more than one viewing if only because his technical virtuosity is so beautifully appealing.

Grade: B-

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