Saturday, April 13, 2013

You're Getting Sleepy: TRANCE

Trance is an unusually twisty heist movie. I think that’s supposed to be the entertaining part. But in practice, the plot twists end up collecting so quickly and consistently, undoing the impact of the ones that came before, that the storytelling left me only thoroughly unengaged by the images flickering in front of me. It’s the kind of movie that starts complicated and only twists from there. In fact, by film’s end what has happened has shifted so substantially from what, at the beginning, appeared to be happening, that I’m hesitant to tell you much at all about the plot’s specifics. It’s the kind of movie that grows sillier the more it divulges. In this case, Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s script seems to be a textbook example of how to overwork a flimsy premise.

But you didn’t come all this way just for me to tell you nothing, so all I’ll say is this. The film starts with a seemingly mild-mannered, everyman auctioneer (James McAvoy) at a London art gallery. During bidding on a nice-looking Goya, the auction is broken up by intimidating intruders. McAvoy finds himself confronted by thieves intent on making a much more forceful bid than anyone was expecting. In the ensuing drama, a nicely directed bit of action, the painting goes missing. That’s a suitably compelling – and simple – start to a would-be hypnotic thriller, but wait, there’s quickly more (and more, and more).

The thieves, a motley crew led by great French character actor Vincent Cassel, make away with a bag they think contains the painting, but, upon opening it, discover they only got the frame. Shame, then, that McAvoy was hit in the head during the heist and can’t remember where he stashed the Goya for safekeeping. Enter a hypnotherapist played by Rosario Dawson. She promises that she can unlock the secrets that amnesia has conveniently locked away, although at first McAvoy doesn’t tell her that A.) he’s there under duress and B.) can’t remember where he’s hidden a stolen painting. From there, the film cannot be said to contain a plotline so much as a plot pretzel with nearly every sequence undercutting the facts – and more importantly, the emotion – previously established.

It’s directed by Danny Boyle, a hyperkinetic stylist who specializes in jump and smash cuts, off-kilter angles, and shifts in the colors and textures of the image. Here he’s a bit more restrained than his usual jumpy, borderline manic style as seen in the likes of Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours. He also managed to achieve a living version of that energy when he choreographed the stunning opening ceremony at last summer’s Olympics in London, but with Trance his style feels sleepier, or maybe exhausted. It’s not that it’s sedate, exactly, just that the energy is a bit too relaxed for the level of acrobatic strain the plotting is putting the characters through. It’s as if the movie itself has fallen into a trance. For all Boyle’s skill at on-edge unease, he’s rarely done a straightforward thriller. But here it is, a film in which genre is the only straightforward thing about it. The thing about situating characters, and the audience, on-edge, is that there must be some awareness of an edge. There’s no mooring here when anything and everything is potentially thrown into doubt by the next twist.

I don’t mean to say the movie is confusing, at least not on the level of what happens, but it is confused. That is to say, it’s always clear what is happening at any given moment, even when we go inside minds under hypnosis for casually surreal dream states that reveal themselves with great meaningless import. What is increasingly muddled is why anyone should care. I felt bad for the actors, who are uniformly good, but trapped giving performances that are totally committed to nothing but the confusion of it all. (Dawson, especially, makes herself vulnerable in unfortunately unnecessary ways.) By the end, though it’s repeatedly explained, changed, and explained again, I wasn’t entirely certain what any of the characters wanted and what they would do if they got it. The last scene of the film features a character debating whether or not he will make a choice to literally erase from his memory the events of the entire film. Boyle cuts to the credits before the character makes the choice and, indicative of my level of interest and understanding, I neither knew nor cared what was decided.

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