The central premise of Danny Boyle’s latest, “Trance,” is a guy involved in an art heist who gets struck on the head and then can’t remember what he did with the purloined painting. This is clearly some sort of advanced conceptual prank, a cheeky allegory for the amnesia the film itself will produce in the viewer, which is identical. I know I saw “Trance” because I have some notes from the screening to prove it, but that’s about it: Trying to recall any of it for this review, all I can dredge up is a vague haze.
One simple criterion I’ve found for judging films over the years is how many indelible images they leave me with. It’s been over a decade since I last saw Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” but I still remember Renton outrunning the coppers to the strains of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” fishing around in that toilet for his dropped dope, or that dead baby haunting his cold-turkey sweats. On the other hand, I just saw “Trance” a couple of months ago, yet its memory has faded almost as completely as what I had for breakfast on June 18, 1987. Well, there is the formidable image of Rosario Dawson striding entirely unclothed straight toward the camera, but that’s cheating.
James McAvoy plays an auction-house employee named Simon who has been well trained in what to do if there’s ever a robbery — which makes him the perfect man for an inside job. A hardcore gang of criminals led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) pull off a bold robbery of a priceless Francisco Goya painting, but find the swag bag Simon handed off to them is in fact empty. Needless to say, Franck is not too pleased with Simon’s memory loss, but after torture fails to produce any answers, he turns to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Dawson) to try to pry the painting’s whereabouts from Simon’s brain. She figures out what’s going on, though, and demands to be cut in on the deal.
Boyle — who shot the film before he directed the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, and edited it after — aims to make a mind-bender in the spirit of “Inception” or “Sleuth,” with layer after layer of ulterior motives and missing memories revealed as the movie progresses, but interest in the story’s resolution wavers in the face of increasingly tricky and ridiculous plot twists.
Worse, the characters are paper thin and not engaging in the least: Dawson makes a half-decent femme fatale, sexually manipulating both Simon and Franck, while Cassel is as menacing as you’d expect, but McAvoy’s character just comes off as a hopeless idiot, which is problematic since we’re supposed to be rooting for him; his late-film transformation into gun-wielding bad-ass is barely convincing, and that is doubly so for what “Trance” asks us to believe that hypnotherapy is capable of.
Working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and editor Jon Harris (“127 Hours”), Boyle achieves his usual slam-bam pacing in the film, with pulsing, rhythmically-cut sequences set to four-on-the-floor electronic club music. But rather like gobbling molly on a dance floor all night with a couple of energy drinks on top, the experience is lurid but ultimately a bit of a blur.