Simon (James McAvoy, "X-Men: First Class"), a fine art auctioneer, leads us through the rigors of security at Delancey's of London just as Goya's 'Witches in the Air' is about to hit the block. After it is sold for over $20 million, thieves enter and Simon snaps into his training, whisking the masterwork away. But where to? Simon's hit on the head by Franck (Vincent Cassel, "Black Swan"), who is actually his coconspirator, and he cannot remember where he hid the painting. Franck has the idea of hiring a hypno-therapist and Simon is drawn to Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson, "Unstoppable," "10 Years") as the professional who will put him under a "Trance."
After his Indian slumdog epic and his harrowing tale of an isolated hiker, Danny Boyle returns to his roots, exploring relationships fracturing under the weight of greed and passion where no one and nothing is as it first seems. This one shares DNA and one of its cowriters with "Shallow Grave" but its style is current Boyle, as defined by the stunning work of now constant collaborator cinematographer Anthony Todd Mantle. Unfortunately, despite ofttimes dazzling sights and hypnotic sounds, "Trance" ends up a pretty empty experience, largely due to the miscasting of James McAvoy in the central role. And just why this is I really cannot say without giving away plot twists.
Simon is viewed as a hero by the media, the auctioneer employee who got injured going up against the bad guys, but it doesn't take too long for us to realize he is one of them when Franck shows up and begins demanding the painting. Simon's got gambling debts which forced his hand but Franck is a real criminal, one whom Simon found via drug-dealing henchman Riz (Wahab Sheikh). Elizabeth notices a number of things about Simon when he arrives in her minimalist Harley St. office and soon figures out just what's going on (Simon has given her a cover story that doesn't actually involve the Goya) and when Franck realizes this, she's elevated from hired hand to accomplice. Things get interesting when first Simon, then Franck, begin passionate affairs with the seductive therapist. Then Simon begins to remember and we begin to make sense of actions that may not have made sense in their first (or second, or third) incarnation.
There is an inherent problem with movies like this, the kind that like to continually pull the rug out from under one's feet, that means the filmmakers may have to cheat a little bit to pull it off and "Trance" falls prey to this (just go back to Elizabeth Lamb's actions when Simon first leaves her office). But there is so much craft on display here - the pinpoint execution of the heist (with a shocking pink Smartcar as accomplice!), the initial driving rock score which morphs into something more trance inducing, the meticulous use of color, surfaces which warp and reflect and the iPads and Smartphones holding fragments of memory. Dawson's lush, nude form is an effect in itself.
In fact, Dawson has never been better than she is here, a cool but utterly hot professional who begins to take control with her character's unusual advantage. There's an odd connection between her and McAvoy's Simon, an immediate yet wary one which combusts. McAvoy has our sympathies at the start, but he hasn't invested his character with any tells that might explain things we learn as things shift. When they do, it's like a switch has been flipped and all that's left is the dupe. Although he's initially in the background, Cassel has the most interesting arc, a brutal gangster who becomes more and more sympathetic as the story unfolds. As Boyle goes into overdrive with a violent, ugly climax, Franck's the only one we care about. And there's the rub. "Trance" is just a little too calculating and when its mysteries are revealed it loses its allure.
Robin gives "Trance" a B-.
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