Reportedly, director Danny Boyle used Inception as a point of comparison when raising money for Trance, his new thriller about art theft and hypnosis. Both films take labyrinthine detours through the human psyche, but Trance doesn't live up to Inception's standard. While Inception's mental skullduggery might be all make-believe and Trance hinges on the actual practice of hypnotherapy, Boyle's film somehow proves the less convincing.
James McAvoy plays Simon, an employee at a fancy, high-security London auction house. He narrates the opening sequence, which moves like gangbusters, as a team of thieves, led by debonair Franck (Vincent Cassell), executes a robbery during an auction of Goya's "Witches' Sabbath." Boyle exults in the crosscutting and sound design as the auctioneer delivers his spiel, the criminals move into place, and rock 'n' roll rumbles on the soundtrack. It's like the best part of any Guy Ritchie film.
The film soon reveals that Simon has a connection to Franck's gang and knows the location of the prized painting. Unfortunately, Simon has also suffered a head injury and some highly specific memory loss, and no amount of torture can make him reveal its whereabouts. He turns to Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), the world's hottest hypnotherapist, to recover his lost memories. Franck's gang listens in while Elizabeth goes through the ritual of inducing a trance state, building suspense on multiple levels. Simon's secrets resist simple discovery, however, and Elizabeth becomes more deeply involved in the search for the painting, while forming ties to Simon and Franck that prove more than professional.
Trance doesn't disguise its intent to play tricks on the audience. When Simon goes under, we see dreamy interludes that we know aren't really happening, like a drive through the French countryside to a chapel filled with famous lost paintings. We know not to take at face value things that Trance presents us, but the more convoluted the story becomes, the less connection we feel to the characters. The lead actors gamely commit, and McAvoy pulls off some surprising revelations, but the roles ultimately feel ill-served by the film's fake-outs.
Boyle is coming off some highly prestigious projects, including his Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire, his nomination for 127 Hours and his acclaimed gig directing the London Olympics' opening ceremonies. Trance serves as a reminder that he's more of a genre-jumping stylist than a filmmaker with a more deeply abiding interest in human nature. For every bravura sequence he concocts in Trance, he seems to offer a drab adjustment, such as the tendency to bathe the characters in red neon. Perhaps he justifies the film's outbursts of crazy violence and full-frontal, clean-shaven nudity as tapping images from the untamed corners of Simon's subconscious. Still, Trance ends up feeling less smart than sleazy.
You leave Trance wondering how it would have fared in the hands of Christopher Nolan, who crafts twists that inform character and carry thematic weight, so that a film like Memento rewards a repeat viewing once you know the score. Trance doesn't seem worth the extra effort, as most of the thrills it offers are cheap ones.