Movies that take place in the cracked headspace of an unreliable narrator – movies like Trance, a jumpy new thriller from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle – have an easy time explaining away any confusion or lapses in logic. Or, rather, they have an easy time avoiding the need to explain anything in plain terms. So we sit up and take notice when fine art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) introduces himself by addressing the audience directly, describing the ingredients of a successful robbery and how he’s trained to prevent such occurrences. Simon’s training kicks in when a professional gang of thieves steals a Goya canvas worth more than $25 million from his London auction house. But it’s not enough: he’s conked on the head by the gang’s ringleader, Franck (Vincent Cassel), who makes off with the painting while Simon lies unconscious on the floor.
Here we have the blueprint for a standard heist movie, except that the actual crime takes place within the first 10 minutes. Trance flips the script by skipping the preparations and examining the fallout among the stick-up crew, whose inside man has duped Franck by giving him a worthless decoy. When they press the turncoat to reveal the location of the real painting, he cannot remember, because “he” is Simon and “he” is suffering a case of retrograde amnesia caused by Franck’s vicious blow. With his options running out, Simon is forced into hypnotherapy, where it’s hoped that an attractive American doctor (Rosario Dawson) can pull the information out of his subconscious. It doesn’t take long for her to discern what’s really going on and demand to be included in the scheme, raising the bar of the movie’s high-stakes game of deceit and betrayal.
Boyle deserves credit for taking a convoluted narrative that relies on an near-religious acceptance of the effectiveness of hypnosis and molding it into a pulpy, noir-ish confection not unlike this year’s Side Effects. His finest skill is making things seem cooler than they really are, and he’s chosen subject matter that’s almost too appropriate for the disorienting swirl of his repetitious, cut-and-paste visual style. “Trance” is not so much a title as a mission statement that Boyle and his entire crew (particularly his editor and his composer) take very seriously.
Unfortunately, the style only compounds Trance‘s issues as it begins to break down from the strain of its increasingly wild plot twists. Boyle and screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge make the fatal mistake of expanding the psychodrama beyond the one unspooling in Simon’s head, blunting the impact of an otherwise propulsive and well-acted film. The perpetually-shifting narrative only seems like it’s divulging its secrets at a breakneck pace. The constant “or does he?” revelations start to grate by the third act, which presents a torrent of scenes meant to clarify the central mystery but come across as an exhausting pileup of far-fetched conceits. Just like any entertaining fib, Trance starts off nimble but becomes leaden with complexity until it can barely support its own weight.