Thursday, August 13, 2015

Trance

The last time I reviewed a movie starring James McAvoy, I compared its style to Trainspotting. I guess it was inevitable the next movie I reviewed in which McAvoy descends into madness and hallucination would be directed by Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting.

Trance (2013) begins with a setup Alfred Hitchcock might have found appealing. Simon (McAvoy) is an art auctioneer involved in a scheme led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) to steal a priceless painting. However, he rips off the gang and makes off with the painting, but in the chaos of the robbery, Simon is struck in the head by Franck and develops amnesia, so he can't remember where he left the painting or why he wanted to double-cross Franck. After torture fails to get the information, Franck sends Simon to a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth, (Rosario Dawson) to extract the lost memory of the stolen painting from Simon's brain.

For the first forty minutes or so, I was intrigued with Trance (though not entranced). The film initially builds around three questions: where is the painting, why did Simon take it, and what role will Elizabeth play? When the crooks first send Simon to Elizabeth, they tell to him to pretend he's looking for his car keys, but very quickly, she realizes there's more going on than what Simon is telling her. That's an interesting concept because he's trying to both find and hide the truth, but Boyle jettisons this strategy soon after and includes her in the scheme.

Boyle brings a lot of disorienting style to the film. Simon flows in and out of memories, and Boyle shoots the film in an off-kilter, skewed way, a perfect reflection of a fractured, distorted mind. People in the present end up in the memories, and the line between real and imaginary grows increasingly blurred. Boyle uses a lot of slanted camera angles, aggressive lighting, frantic editing, and wonky reflections to represent Simon's fragile state of mind as he unravels.

But after a while, the movie loses steam. That's the challenge with these real-or-unreal narratives: if you keep piling on effect upon effect and don't seem to be getting anywhere, eventually the viewer is going to lose patience and just stop caring. I know I did. The film opens with a lot of momentum - a robbery, a double cross, torture, a mystery, a desperate medical procedure- but by the halfway mark or so, everything becomes bogged down. And worse, when the big secret of Simon and Elizabeth's past is revealed, Boyle has to halt everything to explain it. The best twists are the ones that propel the suspense and pull all the plot threads tight. In this case, the twist is just too convoluted and uninteresting.

Performances are solid, but there's no sympathetic character present to keep things grounded. McAvoy has a keen way of playing these protagonists who grow increasingly unbalanced, but Simon is a crook and a rat, and the more we learn about him, the less we like. Elizabeth begins as a sympathetic doctor, but she too quickly is revealed as a schemer. That leaves Franck and his gang of thieves, murderers, and rapists. With no one to care about, Trance is ultimately an energetic but deflating exercise in style.

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