For director Danny Boyle, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. With each genre of movie he makes, you get the sense that he wants to be sure it's the most demonstrative of its kind ever. Trainspotting was the druggiest movie ever. 28 Days Later was the zombie-iest movie ever. Slumdog Millionaire was the most exotic and romantic and melodramatic movie ever. (Not really, but you know what I mean.) Kinetic and vivid, Boyle's films are a visual delight and an emotional pummeling. With Trance, he's gone ahead and made the trippiest of trippy head-game thrillers in recent memory.
Trance in some ways returns Boyle to his roots, playing like a spiffier, gaudier version of his 1994 debut, Shallow Grave. As in that film, a crime goes wrong, and no one can trust anyone else in the aftermath. Trance's ostensible hero is Simon (James McAvoy), who works for a British auction house that's robbed by Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his men in broad daylight. Soon, though, it becomes clear that Simon has teamed up with the crooks (in order to settle large gambling debts) to be their inside man to rob a priceless Goya painting. But there's one problem: During the heist, Simon got concussed by Franck and now has no memory where he hid the painting. Desperate, they send Simon to a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in the hopes she can help. But she quickly realizes that he's not really there to find his missing keys as he alleges: She figures out he and Franck are part of the auction heist, and she wants a cut of the painting's worth if she succeeds in recovering his memory.
Because it's partly set in Simon's subconscious, which creates "Is this a dream?" scenarios throughout, Trance will probably be compared to Inception, although it's not nearly as brooding as that Christopher Nolan effort. The recent movie that most comes to mind is actually Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects, which happily pushed past plausibility for the sake of springing twist after twist on the audience. You got the sense that Soderbergh was flexing his muscles and having a little fun, and so it is with Trance. As is Boyle's way, Trance has an almost operatic emotional sweep to it–love and betrayal and regret and past sins all swoop by with an all-caps intensity to them. (To help restore Simon's memory, Elizabeth has to guide him past a Dark Secret that he's been repressing for some time. And it isn't helping matters that he's fallen in love with her.) But mostly, Boyle seems like he's just happy amusing himself, letting the preposterous story not bother him one lick.
When you've got somebody who's as visually assured and commanding as Boyle behind the camera, it can be awfully tempting to forgive Trance's increasingly ludicrous plotting. (The questions just keep mounting. For instance, couldn't these underworld figures find a hypnotherapist they trust rather than going to a total stranger? And if Simon's memory has a gap of just a few hours, he couldn't have gone that far during that time–the painting has to be somewhere nearby, right?) But because it's such a whirling dervish of colors and energy and music–the propulsive electronic-rock score never lets up–Trance carries you away with its confident skillfulness.
For a while, anyway. Unfortunately, the film isn't very engaging, and it only becomes less so as it moves along. By Boyle's standards, Shallow Grave was one of his less stylish films, but it worked so ingeniously because of the interplay between its three central characters, which Boyle established well enough early on that the escalation of their later backstabbing actually had some weight to it. By comparison, Trance is simply shallow, twisting and turning its characters so that we're never sure who to believe or why we should really care. Which is a shame because the performances are actually pretty good–especially Dawson's. She's both sexy and smart as a hypnotherapist who has no problems calling the shots around this group of thugs and killers. (Another difficult plot point to swallow, but Dawson sells it.)
One shouldn't take Trance too seriously–it knows it's all style and no substance–and there's something to be said for just a pure movie-movie experience that zips along with this much panache. But if you're going to go to the trouble of casting some good actors and pulling out all the technical stops, it would seem like a small thing to work up a compelling, clever story that complements those other assets. Apparently not, though. For all of his talents, Boyle for once seems hypnotized by his own pizzazz. Let's hope he snaps out of it quickly.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.