TRANCE makes for an interesting case study: if the script writers paint your movie into a corner, can a skilled director like Danny Boyle direct his way out of it? And for TRANCE, the answer is: not really. While much of Boyle’s signature style is all over the movie, there’s no escaping the fact that the script by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, when pared down to the essentials, is pretty dumb. So Boyle scatters all the plot pieces like a bad shuffle, and hopes the audience will enjoy the film enough to pick up the cards. It’s too bad that once you gather the plot together, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The connective tissue is very, very thin.
Boyle directs the hell out of TRANCE; that much is certain. The opening scenes that set the plot in motion are done masterfully well, as Simon (James MacAvoy) explains in voiceover just how difficult it is these days to steal a painting. Simon works for an auction house, but he’s also in deep with Franck (Vincent Cassel), and so together they hatch a plot to steal a famous Goya painting. Halfway through the heist, however, Simon seems to have a change of plan, and decides to double-cross Franck. The attempt fails, and Simon gets clubbed on the head for his troubles.
Problem is, Simon wakes up in the hospital, with Franck and his goons waiting for him. Simon made off with the painting after all, but now he can’t remember where he put it. Franck does all the tough guy moves he can play here, but to no avail – Simon really can’t remember. So in desperation, Franck finds some hypnotherapists on his iPad and tells Simon to pick one. He chooses the beautiful Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), and hopes that hypnotherapy will unlock his memory about what happened that night and where the painting is. But Elizabeth’s hypnotherapy takes Simon on a very strange journey, where memory cannot be trusted, and his companions trusted even less.
Audience loyalties may shift through the movie – is Simon everything he appears to be? Is Franck as nefarious as he seems to be? And is Elizabeth loyal to Franck, Simon, or herself? If these characters were more likable, audiences might want to navigate through it. But although MacAvoy, Cassell, and Dawson try, the script betrays their characters constantly. Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s script, based on a television movie of the same name (also written by Ahearne), stretches all credibility. There’s some very ridiculous plot twists in the final act of the movie, but what may have seemed clever on the page doesn’t work on the screen. Instead, I ceased to care about who was manipulating who.
MacAvoy and Dawson do good work regardless, with Dawson putting herself into some pretty vulnerable moments and MacAvoy carrying the weight of the plot on his back at times. Vincent Cassel surprised me with a fairly nuanced performance of what on the surface is a simple criminal thug. He’s extremely likable, even when he’s having one character’s fingernails pulled out. There’s a nice chemistry between Cassel and Dawson - as each tries to manipulate Simon into getting what they want, they share mutual goals that turn into something unexpected.
Much has been said about the nudity in the movie – at one point Elizabeth presents herself to Simon shaved – and while it makes a thematic point in the movie, audiences may find themselves uncomfortable with the frankness of it. I’d give TRANCE credit for the adult portrayal of sexual relationships if, again, it didn’t feel like it was written in crayon by some high school kid who just watched FIGHT CLUB for the first time. It’s a shame because those writers have done good work in the past – Ahearne has written some terrific DOCTOR WHO episodes and Hodge, of course, wrote the scripts to TRAINSPOTTING and SHALLOW GRAVE – but there’s just no getting around the silliness of the plot.
But Danny Boyle is still a great director, and he does what he can to salvage TRANCE. The movie was made while Boyle was planning the 2012 Olympic ceremonies, and there are moments where Boyle was most engaged, and then there are moments that seem distracted. The opening heist is well done, and a sequence mid-movie as we dive into Simon’s mind and his perceptions of reality is wonderfully uneasy and off-putting, but director tricks can only do so much when you have a script this wonky. TRANCE will likely be a lesser movie in Boyle’s catalog, and fans of his work should still see the artistry on display and Boyle jumps over a few of the hurdles that the script puts in his way. TRANCE is an interesting movie, but in the end, it’s too much smoke.