by Glenn Lovell
Danny Boyle’s “Trance” is a sinuous, mind-messing thriller starring James McAvoy as a befuddled thief, Rosario Dawson as his sexy shrink, and France’s Vincent Cassel as the crime boss who will go to any lengths to jog McAvoy’s faulty memory. It’s a fun, exhilarating ride full of vertiginous shots and jarring edits meant to keep us reeling, off balance, but does it add up to a compelling mystery on the order of, say, Norway’s recent “Headhunters” (also about an art thief) or even Boyle’s debut feature “Shallow Grave”? Afraid not.
“Trance” is a bit too showoff-y for my taste. Watching it I was always aware of the streaming colors and weird camera angles. And in the end this detracted from what is essentially a Chinese box head-scratcher. There’s also a problem with tone, or rather a lack of consistent tone. The story, adapted from a Brit TV movie by longtime Boyle collaborator John Hodge, starts out flashy, cheeky, like another spin on “The Thomas Crown Affair,” then it gets progressively darker. It winds up, after a bit of unnecessarily gruesome business, almost carefree, flippant, like a bad caper spoof from the 1960s. (For some reason Joseph Losey’s “Modesty Blaise” leaps to mind.)
McAvoy plays Simon Newton, an apprentice at Delancy’s, a posh London auction house that deals in artworks by the masters ‒ Rembrandt, Cezanne, etc. Much is made of the house’s high-tech security system, but when it comes down to it, we’re told, the best way to safeguard a priceless painting from more and more brazen thieves is old-fashioned sleight-of-hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. To pretend to foil the theft of Goya’s $54-million “Witches in the Air,” Simon puts it in a satchel but then, for some reason, refuses to hand it off to his confederate Franck (Cassel), who cracks him in the head. Imagine Franck’s surprise when he opens the case and finds an empty frame. What did Simon do with the painting? Hard to say because that bump on the head has caused amnesia: Simon doesn’t know where he ditched the Goya.
When the old-fashioned methods (pliers to the cuticles) fail to produce results, Franck tries a more sophisticated tack. He sends Simon to a psychiatrist who specializes in hypnotic suggestion. Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson) is good. Maybe too good. She wants in on the action as full partner. Once that’s settled, she plays Simon and Franck against one another. What’s her game? And what motivates her besides the obvious ‒ greed?
True to its title, “Trance” ‒ like Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” before it ‒ wanders in and out of dreamscapes carefully salted with clues to Simon’s suppressed past. We zip by sunflowers out of a Van Gogh. We ogle (after the gun smoke clears) what looks like a cubist rendering of half a head. We tour a virtual gallery stocked with legendary lost paintings. We experience rush-hour delirium, an MRI, premature burial and full-frontal nudity. Say what you will about “Trance,” it’s not boring.
There’s little chance that anyone who has seen this film will play spoiler, even if he wanted to. Like a partially recovered dream, it drifts from memory before you can write it down. Think of it as a flashy time-killer, a hodgepodge of trompe l’oeil ruses that add up to your standard noir mystery, only tricked-out in digital effects.
TRANCE ✮✮1/2 With James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel. Directed by Danny Boyle; scripted by Joe Ahearne, John Hodge. 101 min. Rated R (for violence, profanity, nudity)