Danny Boyle’s Trance is so absorbing not because it’s a heist movie or a psychological thriller or a character study or an intricately-plotted revenge fantasy, but because it’s all of these things at once. Both the audience and the characters must piece together a mystery and simultaneously navigate a mindscape where actual memories cannot be distinguished from the altered state of a hypnotic trance. There comes a point at which we can no longer trust what we see or hear – not even the obligatory explanation during the final act, despite the fact that it’s articulately worded, carefully edited, beautifully performed, and perfectly in accordance with the logic of the story. I’m a particular pushover for movies like this; perceptions of reality are repeatedly toyed with, and in spite of what we’re shown, we’re challenged to reach our own conclusions.
We’re introduced to Simon (James McAvoy), a compulsive gambler who makes a living in London as an auctioneer of fine art. To pay off his outstanding debts, he becomes an inside man for a gang aiming to steal a valuable painting, Goya’s Witches in the Air, during his house’s next auction. The heist goes according to plan … until the leader of the gang, Franck (Vincent Cassel), is forced to give Simon a good blow to the head with the butt of his machinegun. The gang escapes, only to discover that they made off with just the painting’s frame. As for the painting itself, it’s obvious that Simon has hidden it. But where? Despite the torture of having his fingernails pulled out, he simply doesn’t remember; the trauma to his head has given him short-term amnesia.
Desperate to find the painting’s location, Franck puts Simon in the care of American hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who specializes in delving into the darkest recesses of the subconscious and coaxing repressed memories back to the surface. For the select segment of the population susceptible to the deepest, most vulnerable states of trance – 5%, according to the film – she can heighten awareness, increase suggestibility, inspire waking fantasies, and manipulate attitudes and beliefs. We see this in an early montage sequence where she works with patients looking to lose weight, cope with the trauma of being raped, and swing a perfect game of golf, among other things both serious and amusing. She quickly picks up on the fact that Simon, who is indeed among the susceptible, isn’t just another patient and is in fact in a great deal of trouble. Despite the risk, she involves Franck and his thugs in Simon’s therapy.
This is about as much of the plot I can and want to describe for you. The further along it goes, the less straightforward it becomes. I don’t mean that as a criticism; like any engrossing mystery, there are layers to this film that aren’t noticeable until they’re peeled away, and even then, we can’t be sure of anything Boyle shows us. He takes the same approach with the characters, none of whom can be described in absolutes. The more that’s revealed about them, the murkier they become. Elizabeth, initially portrayed as a mere pawn in a criminal scheme, gradually reveals herself to be just as willing a participant. Some may think she’s manipulative, devious, cunning, and overly confident. I prefer to think of her as a clever, assured woman who knows how to take complete control of a situation.
The deeper she goes into Simon’s mind, the further he slips into intense trances, which are visually represented not as surreal dreamscapes but as heightened versions of reality (credit to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle for his deft use of bright lighting and to production designer Mark Tildesley for his beautifully bold color schemes). For Simon, it becomes a crisis of identity as the line between truth and suggestion continues to blur; whatever his actions, it’s possible they were controlled by others rather than motivated by himself. This is a frightening prospect, and he thusly navigates the story in a slightly off-kilter way – aware, but damaged. Presumably, all will be set right upon his remembering the location of the painting. But you have to wonder: Exactly who was he prior to the heist?
Resist the temptation to take the final act at face value, especially the point at which all is explained. This isn’t to suggest that what we’re told happened didn’t actually happen; it’s certainly possible that the explanation is indeed the God’s-honest truth. But given what the filmmakers reveal about certain characters and the ways in which they’re revealed, one must consider the possibility that the explanation is in fact an elaborate diversion from the truth, which may never be known. The only thing I can say with absolute certainty about this story is that I’m not certain about anything. In a lesser movie, that would be a drawback. In the case of Trance, it’s the sign of a strong screenplay and an engaging directorial style. You might say I was susceptible to its influence.
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20th Century Fox