Every time I'm nearing the end of a Danny Boyle film there is at least one scene that jars so violently into a tone or genre different from what came before that I imagine when Boyle sits down with a script he writes "Throwing it all in" at various points. It's what makes him interesting as a director and constantly entertaining. But, as opposed to summer blockbusters, his films have always been the epitome of popcorn entertainment for me. They're films I pop in, get a bowl of popcorn, enjoy myself silly, and then pop out with nary a returning thought.
Trance is firmly in this category and all the better for it. The plot has to do with a bunch of psychoanalysis and hypnotherapy producing the images we see which puts it dangerously close to mucking about in some of the same plot considerations as Inception. Boyle, thankfully, manages to keep things seeming fresh and lively throughout the film even though all he's doing is setting up a rug for us to get hurled out from under repeatedly. Were the film not so pretty to look at I might have been a bit annoyed, but overall it serves as another popcorn entertainment admirably.
The film starts with an image that sums up the experience of Trance beautifully. Simon (James McAvoy) sits in an empty auction hall as the auctioneer sells nothing to nothing to him with boisterous energy. Quick translation from the creative team: there is not much under the hood, but we're going to sell it to you with all the energy we can muster. On the film goes, showing that Simon is actually in on a heist led by Franck (Vincent Cassel). During the course of the heist Simon seems to get a little too into the role of the victim and during an unnecessarily brave moment gets knocked on the head and forgets what he did with the painting.
Cut to Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), calmly guiding people through hypnosis to face their desires and fears to find ways of dealing with them. Her involvement signals the beginning of the plot proper but also the confusing twists that multiply so quickly the film could be accused of cheating. Simon goes under hypnotherapy to try and remember where the painting is but his memories start to mix with the hallucinations, which start to stand alongside Elizabeth and Franck's memories and experiences, and feature guest spots from Franck's crew with their own memories and sometimes hallucinations.
As you might imagine, this is a lot to keep track of, and Boyle is not interested in doing any kind of hand-holding. Instead he tosses the visuals through a kaleidoscope and introduces the various fragments as soon as they make the most emotional sense to the characters. It might seem a bit labored if Boyle didn't go through with the idea with such aplomb. Colors of all shade blast the screen time and again, characters as they are shattered appear in multiple shards of the same frame, and voices unspoken waft into the soundtrack to further add to the hypnotic effect. It is not to classic results, but the sheer effort of Boyle's exuberance is a lot of fun to watch and, in one way, it works as a great commentary on popcorn films since they exist so firmly in the now that Boyle's energetic approach to the story fragments show how these films abandon the pretense of cohesion for exactly what they want from moment to moment.
All those fragments also signal a problem at the screenplay level. Boyle, with his kitchen sink approach, has a story from frequent partner John Hodge and Joe Ahearne that contains a heist film, a thriller, a revenge plot, romance, gender empowerment story, action scene, and so on. A lot of those moments work together but some of the more jarring changes, like the transition from a monster film to the melodramatic conclusion, left me with a bit of whiplash. The characters don't come across as anything more than what they appear as at that moment. But the scenes that do work have a morbid alchemy all their own, like a shootout that ends with some dialogue from a source that I'm not sure many in the audience would expect to be speaking again.
The performances are a mixed bag partly due to the quality of the participants and also due to the screenplay. My ears perk up anytime I hear Cassel is involved in a film and he gets a surprising opportunity to stretch out beyond the normal threatening creep I typically see him as. His role provides moments of tenderness that he handles to great effect, all the more surprising considering their sudden emergence within the film. His partner in crime McAvoy is less impressive in failing to make much of an impression in the many shades of his character. Dawson, a long-time favorite of mine, continues her streak of performances. She navigates the many genre tones best by basically resisting the changes and keeping her character centered in a storm of confidence in her actions.
I wouldn't be too surprised if the film ends and audiences are angry at the revelations that litter the last ten minutes of the movie. In a way, it doesn't matter how it ends, because the film exists in such a shattered realm that Boyle and company could have crafted almost anything and made it work. But that's how some of the best popcorn entertainment goes, it exists as it should for greatest effect from moment to moment until we close our hands and find nothing to hold at the end. It's still an illusion but so long as the apparitions are this entertaining we can go along with it for a bit of pleasure.