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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: Trance

Academy Award winning Director Danny Boyle has made some fascinating genre excursions throughout his career. I'm particularly a very big fan of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which touch on very different areas of interests (zombies and sci-fi respectively), but worked for me spectacularly as a revival of both tired affectations. After a successful transition to awards-calibre filmmaking in Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, Boyle returns to another vision of pop-corn fare, this time taking on what at first appears to be his take on a heist movie in Trance. It seems though, Boyle may have bitten off more than he could chew, as his ambition eclipsed what actually appears on-screen creating a bit of a mess.

Simon (James McAvoy), an aloof art auctioneer, is injured in the heist of an incredibly valuable Goya painting. As it turns out, he is also a part of the heist, acting as the crooks' inside man. Due to an inexplicable decision, instead of Franck (Vincent Cassel) getting away with the painting, Simon hides it but cannot recall where due to a blow to the head received via Franck when he suspected betrayal. Franck and Simon enlist the use of hypno-therapist that can assist him with his amnesiac state, Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), whose attempts to coax Simon's memories of the event, but may have plans of her own. With an ability to shift memories and reality, the audience is left wonder just what is real and what is fabricated.

Making no bones about it, Trance is Danny Boyle's attempt at parlaying a Christopher Nolan film (Memento or Inception to be exact). While modern filmmakers are often inspired by past masters, such as Paul Thomas Anderson successfully emulating Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman in his earliest efforts, this is one of the first times I can think of a present-day director attempting a style of one of his contemporaries in recent times. The entire first act takes on Nolan's semi-puzzle box presentation style but the trappings feel like a minor-league version of them, as Trance isn't structured well enough to feel like its anything but a pale shadow and the characterizations of the leads are never fleshed out enough for a viewer to care about the twisty narrative that Boyle is aiming for, which may be the Trance's greatest flaw.

This issue comes to the forefront in the second act, after the initial rules of Trance's world are created (Elizabeth has super hypno-powers, which is a conceit that one must accept first) and the "men in suits" heist narrative subsides; Boyle attempts to turn the film into a bit of a relationship drama with scenes that are portrayed so ridiculously, it elicits unintentional laughter from its audience. While some of these bizarre strands get explained away by the film's conclusion, the character motivations are still very unclear. As a viewer, I understand that Boyle is attempting to craft his own version of the "Femme Fatale" archetype with Elizabeth, whose powers over men create tension and place her in a position to either be in danger or be the mastermind behind it all, but actions still require some form of logic and moments within this portion of the film still make very little sense to me, particularly when it's all "tidily" explained away.

Even in the story's heightened reality, the dialogue and motivations just don't portray how a human would really act. A jumps to D because it's required by the plot, but Boyle forgets when you leave out B and C, you leave people scratching their heads. Franck and Elizabeth particularly act in contradictory ways that simply cannot be explained away by the "shifting reality" narrative. Elizabeth utilizes her sexuality with Franck and Simon, but to what end (other than a Rosario Dawson nude scene)? Why did she do this? Franck just happens to allow Elizabeth into his gang no questions asked, despite the fact that he's a ruthless criminal. No, he just really wants to be Elizabeth's boyfriend. It's this kind of unexplained and unearned set of character motivations that makes Trance a spectacular mess. Boyle is so concerned with the inner workings of Simon's mind, and the role in which Elizabeth plays there, that he and the script don't bother to properly flesh out any of the other players to a satisfying degree. Within this film, plot comes first, and little else seems to matter, if only the plot was particularly engaging. By the climax, when the exposition begins to finally roll out in the most ham-fisted delivery possible by Dawson, and all twists are displayed, Trance almost feels lost inside of itself. Certainly, it leaves clues throughout and unlike this year's Side Effects, the big twist doesn't feel like a complete cheat that totally ruins the experience of what came before, but in this film's case we realize what came before wasn't really all that spectacular to begin with and the final resolution is embarrassingly poor.

To its credit, Trance looks beautiful. Reteaming with DP Anthony Dodd Mantle, Boyle creates a London that comes out of a radioactive dreamscape. With a wide array of flashing neon lights, and glass architecture, Boyle and Mantle's work looks to have taken the beauty of last year's Skyfall's "Shanghai sequence" and transposed it to all elements of the film and provide a beautiful evolution of the colorful palette they adhered to in Slumdog Millionaire. This flair combined with the hypnotic and well-placed score that takes the film's title literally (composed by the mastermind behind the group Underworld), there's a visual and auditory cohesion that the poorly conceived script belies. These flourishes are Trance's only significantly positive trait.

Performances are fine generally, McAvoy does his best with a pretty unforgiving role that gives him little to work with. There's a decent bit of expectation subversion towards the end of the film regarding his character that while predictable, at least kept me interested. Cassel, a phenomenal actor, that's finally getting bigger roles in English language films gets even less to do and Dawson, who comes to be Boyle's featured player, is fine, but feels a bit like a square peg in a round hole and doesn't quite have the gravitas to deliver some of this difficult dialogue and situational drama she's been assigned.

By Trance's conclusion, a character has the ability to forget everything that's happened. When the credits rolled, I wish I had been given the same option. Much like Trance music, Boyle's efforts here simply amount to a wall of white noise and no sense of true memorable melody and style simply cannot overcome the lack of substance. Trance is never boring, but its often ridiculous. This is definitely Boyle's worst film since A Life Less Ordinary and a big disappointment.

I give it a D+

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