Danny Boyle is a director who likes to pull us back from the brink. In “Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “28 Days Later,” and “127 Hours,” he takes his audience to the edge of civilization. He takes them to madness, to addiction, to bone-crushing poverty, to physical and emotional isolation, and of course, to the inevitable zombie apocalypse. But before the credits roll and right before we’re ready to dive headfirst into chaos, he grabs our hands and hauls us back. We survive, we get rescued, we get out of the desert, we get the girl and the million dollars. And the ones who are irredeemable are left behind without hesitation or remorse.
Now that I think about it, Boyle was the perfect guy to make “Trance,” a bizarre and dirty little crime thriller that’s part noirish moral ambivalence, part hallucinatory dream sequence and all kinds of fun.
What can I tell you about the plot of “Trance?” At it’s start it’s about art thieves who utilize an art appraiser (James McAvoy) to steal a Francisco de Goya painting. The caper goes well, until the patsy receives a blow to the head and gets amnesia, the painting disappears, and the leader of the gang (Vincent Cassel) is going to start removing body parts unless McAvoy’s character figures out a way to remember where he put the pesky thing. So like anyone in this situation would do, he goes to a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to try to draw out his memories of the event.
That may sound like an insane premise for a movie, but actually that’s the most straightforward part of the plot. Once the hypnosis enters the picture, I really can’t tell you anymore.
The ridiculousness of the plot is keenly balanced by the naturalistic and astonishingly understated performances of all three of our leads. McAvoy’s made a tidy little career being cute and affable and Scottish, so it’s pretty thrilling to see him in a more ambiguous role, shifting that reckless gregariousness into something more twisted and unpleasant. Cassel has been playing criminals like his art thief for years, but the straightforward nature of his criminality still seems as fresh and relevant as ever.
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge
Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson
But the undisputed star of “Trance” is Dawson; unfortunately I can’t tell you why without giving away the game. It’s not hyperbole to say this is the best performance I’ve seen from Dawson, precisely because of its opaqueness. She shifts from villain, to victim, to hero, to the smartest person in the room, often within the same scene and often without even moving. Part of that is a necessity of the story, but most of it is just Dawson, defeating your expectations before you even realize what they are.
As I said, this is a dirty little movie; Boyle filmed London with a bleakness that rivals “Chinatown”‘s Los Angeles. He styled the environment almost like a place out of time, contrasting with the hypnotherapy scenes which are dreamlike but also hyper-real. His memory sequences are punctuated with violent sound and steadily pulsating music by Boyle’s frequent collaborator Rick Smith. It’s Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, but mainly it’s just Boyle. The movie has a momentum and rhythm all it’s own, something that seems unnatural and takes a little getting used to, but completely enrapturing once you’re in.
Like I said, Boyle likes to pull you back from the brink, and his ending is a little too convenient for my taste. But the ride to get there more than makes up for it, his kaleidoscope of sanity and insanity, violence and sex, dream and reality. There’s no one I’d like better to give me a view of the edge of everything.