Trance (United Kingdom, 2013)

April 04, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Trance Poster

Trance is a member of the movie category defined by the likes of Shutter Island and Inception - films in which the concept of "reality" is flexible and the reliability of the narrative is indeterminate. Even at the end, once all has been explained and seemingly set right, the viewer is left with a nagging uncertainty about whether the established storyline is the legitimate one. There's something immensely appealing about this manner of storytelling in that it challenges the viewer to form his own interpretations about on-screen events. Unfortunately, Trance obsesses a little too much with being clever and twisty. The characters become pawns to the plot, their actions based not on some sort of internal personality consistency but on how they need to perform in order to advance the narrative. The movie is never boring or uninteresting, but I viewed it from a detached perspective, unable to become involved because I didn't really care about any of the three main characters.

Trance gives every indication of being a high-energy heist movie before the bait-and-switch occurs. Simon (James McAvoy), a deputy art auctioneer, is injured attempting to thwart the armed theft of a Goya painting. Despite being hailed by the media and his colleagues as a hero, he was in fact the "inside man" for the job. However, instead of the chief thief, Franck (Vincent Cassel), getting away with the painting, Simon hides it but a knock to the head results in him being unable to remember where he stashed it. When a gruesome regime of torture at the hands of Franck's thugs fails to elicit a response, Franck acknowledges that the amnesia may be real. The next step is to enlist the aid of a hypnotist, Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who seeks to coax a memory of the incident back into Simon's conscious brain. But is she drawing out real recollections or implanting false ones? As viewers, we begin to question everything we're seeing, recognizing that the reality of the film's universe is no longer a constant.

Calling Trance a Shutter Island or Inception wannabe is inaccurate. This is a remake of a 2001 British TV movie; as such, it not only predates both movies but was also likely in the can before author Dennis Lehane began writing the novel upon which the Martin Scorsese movie was based. (The novel Shutter Island was published in 2003.) However, "first" doesn't necessarily equate to "best." Shutter Island and Inception, while using similar approaches to the fluidity of reality and the unreliability of the third-person storytelling method, are more intricately constructed than Trance.

Character development is the chief flaw. Although it's possible to appreciate the twists and loops and switchbacks the storyline puts Simon, Franck, and Elizabeth through, they never seem like more than chess pieces moved around on the board to satisfying some narrative necessity. Franck in particular acts in bizarre and contradictory ways. This big, bad crook, who has no problem ordering the mangling of Simon's hands (and is almost certainly capable of much worse things) hardly blinks when Elizabeth negotiates her way into his gang. Admittedly, some of the personality inconsistencies can be explained by the instability of what's on screen, but not all of them. In the end, Trance is satisfying as a puzzle to solve but not as a story to be immersed in. There's also a problem with the decidedly anticlimactic ending. Trance leads us to believe there's going to be something truly mind-bending or at least mildly surprising but it's all rather straightforward. I felt let down in the same way as with Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger one), another movie that plays with memories and reality.

Director Danny Boyle, one of today's most versatile working directors, uses a fairly straightforward style to tell this story. There are few flourishes. The pace is frantic, rarely pausing for exposition, and the narrative drive keeps viewers involved even if they may be somewhat bewildered or disconnected from the characters. Boyle has no trouble seeming to wrap everything up into a neat, tidy bow while still leaving a sliver of doubt about the outcome.

James McAvoy does an adequate job as the hapless Simon, but there's not a lot of meat on the bone for him to gnaw on. Vincent Cassel is surprisingly low-key as Franck. Cassel has played some truly badass characters in his career but he dials it down considerably for this role. The standout is Rosario Dawson, whose portrayal of Elizabeth smolders. The actress once remarked that she had no qualms about screen nudity if the script required it and she is given ample opportunity to defend that comment. The MPAA has accorded her work in Trance with the odd descriptor "graphic nudity" - not something that bothers her or Boyle, who has a long history of directing scenes featuring "graphic nudity."

Trance is an intriguing movie and worth seeing for those who appreciate films that fuck with the viewer's mind. It's not entirely successful in this goal, however, so a letdown at the end, while not inevitable, is possible. The movie has limited mainstream appeal and its lack of character definition left me feeling as if the glass was half-empty.

Trance (United Kingdom, 2013)

Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2013-04-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1