The viewer will encounter more twists and turns than Alice did in her journey down the rabbit-hole in Danny Boyle’s “Trance,” a puzzler that in the end is just too self-consciously clever for its own good. Revealing too much of the intricacies of its plot would be unfair to the filmmakers; but one has to say that those intricacies are sometimes unfair to the viewer, who is led through a narrative labyrinth to an exit that brings remarkably little satisfaction, while Boyle’s typically overwrought style comes across as more of an assault on the senses than a pleasurable invitation to figure things out. By the close you’re likely to be exhausted by the effort to keep things straight and angry that you bothered to try.
In a script that updates clichés from pulp novels and film noir and decks them out in extravagant flourishes, the protagonist with whom the audience is invited to identify is Simon, a mid-level employee at a prestigious London auction house who addresses the viewer directly about the procedure he’s been taught to follow in the event of an attempted robbery. No sooner does his explanation sink in than a daring heist occurs, the theft of a Goya painting as it’s being auctioned off. Simon springs into action to take the painting to safety, but is accosted by Franck (Vincent Cassel), one of the thieves, before he reaches the drop-chute. Instead of handing it over according to protocol, however, Simon resists, earning himself a knock to the skull as Franck grabs the case in which Simon had placed the painting.
But then the first major twist kicks in: Simon was the caper’s inside man, but had double-crossed his partners in crime by somehow removing and hiding the painting before Franck had confronted him. Unfortunately, the blow Franck gave him caused amnesia, and now Simon can’t remember where he put it. And after a few rounds of torture, Franck’s persuaded that the memory loss is real. So he sends him to Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a specialist in the use of hypnosis, to help him remember what he’s forgotten.
From this point the plot goes off in a dizzying series of revelations, reversals and flashbacks that increasingly turn into a downward spiral. They involve the trances that Elizabeth puts Simon under, which lead to “Inception”-like scenarios that might disclose snatches of the actual past but might just as easily be hallucinations. But unlike the sequences in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bender, the hyper montages that Boyle fashions don’t explain so much as increase one’s uncertainty, especially as the sexual quotient increases between Elizabeth and both Simon and Franck (separately, thank heaven). And the fact that one can never be certain what’s real and what’s fantasy only adds to the confusion—the rug can be pulled out from under you at any moment.
One has to appreciate any picture that aims to challenge its viewer not just to pay close attention—it would be unwise to leave for a refill on that bucket of popcorn—but to try to figure out where things are headed and whose double- or triple-cross is likely to succeed. But when writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge finally present their answers—in a big finale that’s immediately followed by an explanatory postscript (or is it?)—you’re likely to blame yourself for suffering through the increasing level of implausibility along the way.
In terms of its psychiatry-related plot one could compare “Trance” to “Spellbound,” but Hitchcock’s film, while highly inventive for its time, is a model of stylistic restraint next to Boyle’s, which ramps up the director’s customary visual acrobatics to new heights. It’s impossible, however, not to admire the picture’s striking cinematography (by Anthony Dod Mantle) and sharp editing (by Jon Harris). And the cast certainly do what’s demanded of them: McAvoy makes Simon at once vulnerable and unreliable, Dawson is sultrily attractive and manipulative, and Cassel is a model of silken menace.
In the final analysis, though, the film is more hectoring than hypnotic, and you’re likely to leave your hundred-minute session with Boyle cured only of any inclination for a return visit.