The problem with the proliferation of these puzzle box movies post-Inception is that we now know all too well how to watch them: we know what to look for, we know which lines are mere context and which are massive clues ( though of course the former can still change the meaning of the latter into something fresh). Trance is a twisty movie that will at times outrun you with its revelations, then hide behind a corner waiting to jump out with some sort of sucker punch, as all good entries in the genre should but it is tripped up by this very fact. We know too quickly where the film is going to hit us once the fight begins and so the impact of each blow is blunted despite the brutality with which they are thrown by stylist Danny Boyle.
That title, Trance, suggests something slow, meditative and meandering but the film is anything but; though they bear no literal connection it may be best to think of the title more as a nod to the genre of music since the feelings that it evokes are more akin to that sort of experience. The film begins big, cross-cutting between the crime that kicks of the plot, the heady world of art-auctions and an alienating talking head that doesn’t seem to fit into the films chronology. It doesn’t slow down from there, instead it spins off further and further from reality as we know it to be: the sounds, sights, sets and stylish edits carrying us through the acts of this strange story.
A synopsis of said would suggest that the film is an out and out cat and mouse game, that Trance is an ‘Oceans 11 of the mind’ but in fact the heist elements are mostly contained to that opening sequence. After that the physical trickery stops entirely and the characters cease to be at odds, working together instead to solve the problem at hand. Certainly there is conflict and torture and violence ( this is Boyle reuniting with Shallow Grave scripter John Hodge after all) but it boils under the surface in a weird way. There is something more unsettling about this, about the way in which McAvoy, Cassell and Dawson are so at ease with one another and how rationally they react to each new step of the journey. This isn’t an intentional tone though, it’s calm born of contrivance; their open-mindedness is the only way that the film could function as this thorough an exploration of hypnosis.
There were two easy ways that the film could have gone with its depiction of this sort of treatment: satire or sci-fi. It could have made the idea of hypnosis into a hilarious joke or created a high-concept world in which it works to do the impossible. Though there are some leanings towards the latter Trance ultimately walks the line of reality in this field very well; hypnosis is shown to be quite effective under the right circumstances, useless in most and dangerous in a select few. There is nothing in here that goes beyond proven example but its also never suggested to be this all powerful act. The technical way that Boyle depicts hypnosis is the more interesting to me than the philosophical though, he weaves perspective in and out of fantasy in a similar way to his work in 127 Hours but the lines here are so much harder to maintain.
The issue though is that Boyle seems to fail as often as we do at keeping hold of these borders, there are a number of sequences in the film that seem to turn out to be dreams that needn’t have been given the way that they are later repeated and some truths that are far harder to believe than the fictions. This kind of ambiguity can be potent when properly handled but here it just seemed symptomatic of a messy script. There is also an unfortunate side-effect to crafting such a sinister, untrustworthy vibe throughout your film and this is that we respond as prompted and don’t trust a single thing that we see; keeping our sympathy, empathy and emotional connection tied tight to our chest. You know going in that all is not as it seems, so its hard to pay the picture much mind until you know what it all actually is.
Usually the cerebral aspects of this type of film fills in that emotional gap, the trickery and thematic resonance fulfill you enough so as you don’t much mind, but this is actually where Trance tends to really fall apart. It hints at a few interesting ideas – and some particularly peculiar ones – but tends not to focus on them too much, favoring instead the immediate following of the plot and so these notions of truth, memory, art and the purity of pubic hair are, to make a sort of pun, appear underdeveloped. The plot too, once it takes its shocking turns, doesn’t really amount to much; the twists aren’t brutally obvious but they don’t enhance the rest of the movie much once made. I had no desire to watch the film again and see if I could spot something new now that all the necessary knowledge was in tow.
That said though there is still something about the surface of this story that satisfies in a simple way: maybe it is the slick sex scenes and bi-sexual body shots, maybe its the sickening near-feverish violence…I don’t know. It seems though that while Boyle may still be a brilliant, visceral director his eye for scripts has simply succumbed to age as has his ability to story-tell. This is one piece of art better perceived in the peripheral vision than in the full glare of a fascinated cinema-goer, it is a picture that reveals less the more that you look at it, but then I guess that is the way of modern art isn’t it?