Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Review: "Trance"

"Trance" starts with an art auctioneer explaining all the sophisticated steps his employer takes to foil any potential thieves looking to pilfer the ultra-rare and valuable works of art he deals in. So of course, it comes as little surprise when the film proceeds to show a daring group of criminals systematically subverting all that intricate security and making off with Goya's "Witches in the Air," worth tens of millions of dollars.

Well... at least, they come close. The thieves, led by the wily Franck (Vincent Cassel), return to their hideout and find the canvas cut out of the frame. They pay a visit to the young auctioneer, Simon (James McAvoy), and start doing nasty things to him in an attempt to retrieve the painting, figuring that he somehow made off with it for himself.

This might seem cruel -- Simon was already hospitalized after tangling with Franck during the robbery -- until we learn that Simon was in league with the gang all along. Alas, Franck popped him in the head so hard that Simon has plumb forgot where he stashed the loot. They turn to a beautiful hypnotist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to extract the information from his subconscious.

This might sound like a schlocky set-up for a b-movie crime thriller, but director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") and screenwriters John Hodge and Joe Ahearne are more ambitious. They have constructed a multi-layered puzzle box of a movie, with the trio of main characters shifting loyalties and time in the spotlight.
It's a very clever bit of filmmaking; too clever for its own good, in the end.

Obviously I don't want to give too much away, since the bulk of the film's appeal lies in the different turnings of the plot. Suffice it to say that Elizabeth's ability to hypnotize is real, and it leads Simon and the rest down a rabbit hole where we come to question the validity of what has come before.

It's an intellectual engaging enterprise, as the audience tries to catch on to all the hidden cues and sidesteps. What's missing is any emotional connection to these characters. MacAvoy, Dawson and Cassel are a talented trio of actors, but their characters are simply chess pieces in service to the plot.

Simon is a difficult egg to figure out. He seems very passive and pleasant, but flashes a discomfiting smile and has a buried nasty streak. Franck is the opposite, all alpha dog bluster and arrogance, but hides his worry at Elizabeth's ability to alter people's memories and motivations.

She is the toughest nut to crack, readily going along with this criminal enterprise when no legitimate therapist would. Elizabeth often looks scared, but we sometimes wonder if she's secretly got everyone dangling on her string.

There are also sexual attractions, protestations of love, and other ooey-gooey stuff that feels like it belongs to another movie. Not to mention the first time I've seen intimate grooming habits used as a key plot point.

"Trance" is skillfully made, and is entertaining enough as a psychological potboiler. But in its constant efforts at misdirection, somewhere along the way the movie forgot to show us something rather than merely fool us.

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