He might have had a rockier patch in the mid-’00s — no one saw his delightful fable “Millions,” and sci-fi “Sunshine” was both a commercial disappointment and the most difficult shoot of his career — but things couldn’t have gone much better for Danny Boyle in the last few years. “Slumdog Millionaire” was a global hit and an Oscar sensation, winning a golden statue for Boyle himself, while follow-up “127 Hours” was equally well-received, and picked up another Best Picture nod. Furthermore, he oversaw the triumphant opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, a glorious, inventive and moving pageant that cemented his status as a beloved national hero. So where could he possibly go from there?
Well, he made “Trance,” a twisty, mind-bending thriller (actually shot before the Olympics, but edited afterwards) that sees Boyle return to the darker crime fare of his first film “Shallow Grave,” while melding it with the bright, kinetic style of his recent films, ending up with a picture that, if it’s not quite Boyle’s very best, is probably his most satisfying and coherent since “Trainspotting.”
Based on a reasonably obscure UK TV drama by “This Life” writer Joe Ahearne, and penned by “Shallow Grave “and “Trainspotting” scribe John Hodge, in his first collaboration with Boyle since “The Beach,” it opens as Simon (James McAvoy) walks the audience through the emergency in-case-of-robbery procedures at the auction house at which he works. There’s a reason that Simon knows them so well, it turns out: deep in gambling debts, he’s teamed up with thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) to pinch a Goya painting, “Witches In The Air,” worth close to £30 million.
It should have gone off without a hitch, but Simon and Franck fight during the heist, with Simon ending up shotgun-whipped and unconscious. Franck gets away with the loot, only to discover that Simon had already pulled a fast one on him, hiding the painting away for himself. But while he’s come out of his coma, Simon’s brain injury means he has no memory of where he left it, so Franck enlists the help of a hypnotist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who claims she can unlock the secrets buried deep in Simon’s mind. But is Elizabeth everything she seems? Could she have her own agenda at work?
We couldn’t possibly say any more, as part of the joy of “Trance” is discovering its many twists and turns for yourself, and if you’ve managed to avoid the trailers so far, we recommend you keep it that way until you catch up with the film. In its basic set-up — the battle for loot between a trio of protagonists, not all of whom, or indeed any of whom, are entirely sympathetic — it’s immediately reminiscent of “Shallow Grave,” and to some degree, it does feel like a return to the filmmaker’s 1990s roots, the film proving to be his purest genre exercise for a decade, with a playfulness and tricksiness to the material that feels like pure Boyle. That said, though, he’s not the same director that we first encountered nearly two decades back, and the vibrant, hyper-kinetic look (once again courtesy of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) of his last couple of films remains intact.
But somehow it’s a more natural fit here than it was in ‘Slumdog’ or “127 Hours” — that so much of the film revolves around the mind, or the tricks it can play, means Boyle’s style feels more earned. We heard a few comparisons to “Inception” knocking around as we left the theater, and they’re not unfair ones, the plot hinging on the unlocking of Simon’s psyche, and the secrets that it holds within. But if anything, it all feels a little more plausible and authentic than in Nolan’s film; the style might be more jittery, but it seems more fitting to the damaged synapses and dark recesses of its protagonist’s brain. It helps that Hodge’s script — which is terrific as a whole, his ability to stick the landing making the film feel more complete than the less satisfying endings of Boyle’s genre collaborations with Alex Garland — has clearly done its homework on the hypnotherapy side of things.
And yet the film’s not merely content with being a twisty psycho-thriller. Boyle and Hodge expertly tweak and tinker with your sympathies, and the characters you initially peg as heroes and villains may not be in the same place by the time things wrap up. Furthermore, an entirely different film, *SORT OF SPOILER* a drama about an abusive relationship and mental illness, is smuggled in under the genre trappings, without ever feeling like it fails to fit in with the A-plot. *END SORT OF SPOILER*
And it’s just one example of the added texture that elevates “Trance” above your average crime caper. Boyle layers the art that backgrounds the film into the visuals, while also refracting his characters through glass or reflection for much of the film, emphasizing their inscrutability and hidden motivations. And the tremendous, sometimes ear-splittingly loud score from Underworld‘s Rick Smith (a regular Boyle collaborator) is true to the film’s title, making it feel as much a rave as a movie.
While Boyle assembled his old gang behind the camera, in front of it, they’re all new faces for the filmmaker, and all rise to the occasion. Cassel at first seems to have the least interesting part; the same kind of Euro-heavy he’s played countless times in the past. But as the film progresses, he’s allowed to get more vulnerable, and sexier, and is really flourishing by the end. Meanwhile, McAvoy might give his best performance to date here; cast somewhat against type, and very effectively so, he gets to make use of both his natural likability, and the certain malevolence that lurks in his grin. Best of all is Dawson, who’s never had a part of this quality, and tears into it like she’s been starving. Never quite edging into femme fatale, she turns on a dime, and ultimately proves to be the most immediately identifiable figure in the film once it plays all its cards. Plus, given that she’s one of our most pre-Raphaelite-evoking actresses, her casting turns out to be a coup on multiple levels. (There’s also some strong support from Danny Sapani, Matt Cross and Wahab Sheikh as Cassel’s crew, and Tuppence Middleton as a mysterious woman).
Some will kick against the film’s unwillingness to have an entirely sympathetic character, and few would argue that by the time it’s done, it’s maybe gone a twist or two too far, stretching plausibility to absolute breaking point. But it just about held together for us, the film proving to be a head-spinning, psychologically rich take on the crime flick. Those who anointed Boyle a national icon after the Olympics will likely be taken aback by the sex and violence, but one senses he’s been having too much fun to notice. [A-]