Every true film noir needs a patsy – an opportunist who quickly gets in over his head – and a femme fatale, an alluring figure who makes sure that the waters keep rising. Trance, the new thriller from director Danny Boyle, gives us both in one person, a hypnosis therapist played by Rosario Dawson.
Before we get to Dawson, though, the movie introduces us to Simon (James McAvoy), a high-end art auctioneer who serves as the inside man for a heist of Goya’s Witches in the Air. Simon suffers a concussion during the robbery and awakens unable to remember where he stashed the painting, much to the frustration of the drug dealer (Vincent Cassel) who has provided the muscle for the job. After trying a few other methods (Simon also loses his fingernails), Cassel’s Franck resorts to making an appointment with Dawson’s therapist, named Elizabeth. The hope is that Simon will recall the location of the painting under hypnosis. When Elizabeth realizes what’s going on, she wants a cut of the action.
McAvoy and Cassel are both good, but Trance is all about Dawson and the way she wraps them both around her finger (at increasing personal risk). Elizabeth seems a drab presence at first – purely professional – but we soon realize this is just one personality she adopts in order to stay in the game. To Franck, she plays the intrigued innocent (“I must remember never to forget that you’re a criminal,” she tells him). To Simon, she must be the confidante, the white-collar connection that will save him from the clutches of these underworld crooks. Above all, she must keep from being the patsy who has bitten off more than she can chew.
Sleek as it may be, Trance is mostly enjoyable for the way each of the three leads offers a twist on classic noir archetypes.
Notice how Elizabeth frequently uses her calm, therapist’s voice when talking to Simon and Franck – as well as to Franck’s thugs, who are often circling menacingly in the background. Perhaps she’s putting them all – and us – under hypnosis?
That calm, peaceful state is not the sort of thing you’d normally associate with Boyle, one of the premier ADHD stylists of the post-MTV age. The movie’s title, Trance, better evokes his approach, as well as the pulsing music that drives most of Boyle’s soundtracks. More often than not, his rhythmic style adds to rather than distracts from the viewing experience; it’s the reason Trainspotting put him on the map, 28 Days Later had such a persistent terror and Slumdog Millionaire was like a Charles Dickens tale set in a dance club. In Trance, the off angles and mirror images that create a kaleidoscopic visual scheme keep us appropriately discombobulated, especially as we shift in and out of characters’ minds while they’re under hypnosis.
Most importantly, Boyle doesn’t let the style overwhelm these characters. Sleek as it may be, Trance is mostly enjoyable for the way each of the three leads offers a twist on classic noir archetypes. Simon is the first patsy, but also, at times, a villain. Franck is the hood, but he also has moments of unexpected vulnerability. And Elizabeth is, well, that’s for you to discover. I’ll only say that you’ll see her represented in Goya’s Witches in the Air, which depicts three devouring witches, their victim, a cowering bystander and one figure hiding beneath a sheet, trying to quietly slip away. The suspense of Trance lies in waiting to see if she makes it.