101 min., rated R.
Danny Boyle is an eclectic filmmaker whom we can always trust to give us something fresh and exciting in any genre or no genre at all. Ranging from 1996's brutally real but energetic drug-addiction dark comedy "Trainspotting" to 2002's grippingly scary zombie-movie reinvention "28 Days Later…" to 2005's warm, whimsical "Millions" and 2009's fanciful rags-to-riches fairy tale "Slumdog Millionaire," and 2010's harrowing survival story "127 Hours," he certainly can't be accused of repeating himself or having a formulaic oeuvre. Now, with "Trance," Boyle defies expectations again. A twisty, dreamlike, labyrinthine psychological neo-noir puzzle, "Trance" is such a stylish, hyper-cool, brilliantly crafted trip that it can easily be spoken in the same breath as "Memento," "Vanilla Sky," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Inception" and, most recently, "Looper." For a brain-teasing parlor trick, it works like gangbusters.
It's best to know as little about the corkscrew plot, but here's what can be revealed. Simon (James McAvoy) is a London fine art auctioneer who's in charge of grabbing the painting up for sale, zipping it up in a brief case, and dropping it down a safety chute in case of a robbery. Naturally, there's a robbery by a group of gunmen, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), and Simon follows procedure but right before dropping Francisco Goya's "Witches in the Air" down the chute, he is caught and takes a blow to the head. The hit causes Simon to suffer amnesia and forget where he put the precious painting. Once relieved from the hospital, the auctioneer is caught by the thieves and sent to a hypnotherapist of his choice. He goes to Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) on false pretenses that he wants to find his lost car keys, but she notices his wired microphone. Then, things get really interesting, and no, Simon is not really a super-spy for the CIA.
Deliciously convoluted and unpredictable as it is, "Trance" still never cheats—or it doesn't seem to cheat as you're watching it—but it does demand close attention and makes you work for your reward. As they initially withhold information, toy with us and pull the rug out from underneath us more than once, screenwriters John Hodge and Joe Ahearne still drop sly hints throughout that one may pick up on more readily with repeated viewings. For a violent film about characters that are constantly lying to one another, the film could be cold-blooded but that's not the case. Once we realize the Goya painting is just a MacGuffin for something more suppressed in Simon's subconscious and we discover why everyone is operating the way they are, it's actually dripping with emotion. The three protagonists are more dimensional than just pawns in a plot, which is not only praise for the screenplay but the performances as well. As Simon, McAvoy has a magnetic charisma but slippery presence as a root-worthy character to follow, even when our perception of him changes. Seldom given more than a one-note villain to play (and he's always chilling regardless), Cassel draws Franck with more empathy than initially expected. In a role that never makes her just window dressing or a femme fatale, the perpetually lovely Dawson exudes a confidence and plenty of emotional layers in her most captivating performance.
Layer upon layer, "Trance" endlessly surprises us as an involving, transfixing puzzle, whether it be the blurred line between reality and illusion, shifting emotional perceptives, what makes Simon tick, or finally figuring out what the hell is going on. (And what other film out there has a plot point involving female genitalia? Exactly. None.) Audiences are bound to grow frustrated and exhausted by the plot jerking them around, but that's their loss if they give up and don't want to use their thinking cap. It does get a little knotty, but even if the tricky narrative wasn't as carefully thought-out as it is, Boyle expectedly jazzes things up with feverish sensory overload that supports the story rather than overwhelms it. The cinematography by the director's now-five-time collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle is simply transcendent, while employing dazzlingly trippy hyper-saturated colors and lighting schemes right out of a kaleidoscopic rave, and supplemented by the slick rhythm of Jon Harris' editing and Rick Smith's pulsing, hypnotic original score.
Most recently in February, Steven Soderbergh's "Side Effects" was a bait-and-switch B-thriller where nothing was what it seemed but flashed it up with assured storytelling and aesthetics. Without sacrificing brains, that's exactly what Boyle does with "Trance" and more. It's a gross, hackneyed critic quote, but "Trance" truly keeps you guessing, and these days, that's a fun thrill to experience.
Grade: A -