“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack/
You may find yourself in another part of the world/
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile/
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife/
You may ask yourself ‘How did I get here?’”
— The Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”, Remain in the Light
*Apologies for the tardiness of this review. I viewed Trance during an advanced screening at the Century 9 in San Francisco on Monday – 8 April 2013.
No one likes to be thought of as stupid. Even a person secure with their limitations and shortcomings will often comfort him/herself with such a thought as “I might not be Einstein, but I’m not an idiot.” Sure, we might not all have the letters “PhD” after our names, but at a certain age and/or level of experience we tell ourselves that we are well-informed; that we are sure about how the world around us works; that we aren’t one of those people – marks for con artists, exploited by marketeers, the blissfully ignorant. Y’know, the stupid people.
What those people fail to realise is that it’s this very sort of complacent braggadocio that exploiters find so appealing. Thinking you’re unable to be affected is the very thing that makes you so attractive. For with that overconfidence comes complacency and inability to see certain dangers, no matter how close to you they are. Just ask the famous folks who Bernie Madoff had on speed-dial.
This is why people are so resistant to the idea of hypnotism. People associate it with brainwashing. No one would like to think that their mind is susceptible enough to be overtaken by a guy in a cheap suit and a dangling pocketwatch. And though the numerous gauges that measure hypnotic susceptibility seem to agree that only a small percentage of the population are truly vulnerable to explicit hypnotism, it would suck to be the one-poor-schmuck-out-of-100 who actually gets taken in.
Therapeutic hypnotism is a major plot device in the film Trance by Danny Boyle. It involves characters attempting to manipulate others for unscrupulous means. But the assurance of who is being manipulated by whom quickly blurs. It deals with people who feel they are intelligent, entitled, and – most of all – untouchable. In other words, the very sort hubris-addled folk that make for great marks.
Mild-mannered Simon (James McAvoy) is a fine art auctioneer, trained to never fight back if someone attempts to rob the auction. Well, one of Simon’s auctions is indeed robbed for a priceless painting and he does fight back – something he immediately comes to regret when a he receives a beating. The leader of the thieves, Franck (Vincent Cassel), is none-too-happy to discover that Simon switched out the painting before the robbery; nor that Simon is suffering from amnesia after the beating he received.
At Franck’s insistence, Simon is forced to attend hypnotherapy under the guidance of therapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson). Slowly but surely, Simon’s memories become clearer, but he also becomes more susceptible to manipulation. It isn’t long before he begins losing his grip on what is real, and what his mind just tells him is real.
I hated Memento. I realise that, at first glance, that statement seems apropos of nothing, but read my review of The Dark Knight Rises and you’ll better understand my frustration with Chris Nolan. In short: I found Memento sorely lacking and anticlimactic as murder mystery, but interesting as one man’s downward spiral into his own madness. As Nolan’s breakthrough film, it showcases one of his biggest problems: that he’s flashy with gimmicks, but isn’t nearly as good at sleight-of-hand as he would have you believe (a fact made all more apparent in The Prestige, a film about illusionists).
Why do I bring this up? Because Danny Boyle’s Trance is the sort of mind-fuck crime film Nolan has always wanted to make. The film isn’t perfect, but Boyle and screenwriter Andrew Garfield – whose exploration of various states of consciousness goes back to their collaboration on their hit film Trainspotting – create an engrossing visual representation of a degrading psyche and manipulated memory. With a series of erratic cuts and near-deafening sound cues, the viewer is right there as Simon slowly begins to lose his grip on what is and is not real.
Best of all, it’s a true British crime film; which is to say that it’s about the criminals, not the crime. As a fan of that genre – from The Italian Job with Michael Caine to Layer Cake with Daniel Craig – what appeals to me about it is how much I love to be around such horrible people.
Horrible people brought to life by a damned good cast. I first became aware of James McAvoy when he appeared as the would-be suitor in the romantic fantasy comedy Penelope with Christina Ricci. I’ve seen him to action (Wanted, X-Men: First Class), drama (The Last King of Scotland) and all shades in-between. He has a wonderful everyman quality that makes his characters relatable, even when they aren’t likable. And there are moments when you are not supposed to like the character of Simon. During the final act, a revelation is made that is designed to make you hate him. But McAvoy wisely keeps the character grounded, even if I found him reprehensible.
The opposite happens with the character of Franck: we start off hating him, but will love him by the time film is over. Vincent Cassel’s unconventional looks often result in his being cast as villains, but French actor is capable of so much more. Franck isn’t really a villain, so much a man who feels he’s good at his job and hates when something fucks it up. He isn’t above violence, but you’d better give him another viable option first.
And then there’s – be still, my foolish heart – Rosario Dawson’s Elizabeth. I’m a fan of Dawson, I really am. She’s resisted roles and performances that are clearly based on her beautiful appearance and become one of the best under-40 actresses working today. So why didn’t I love her work here? There is a revelation made about her character which, upon second viewing, might add another layer to her performance. But I found it to be “off” for most of the film; as if she were in an entirely different film than her co-stars. Mind you, she holds her own and adds dimension to a role that could have easily been written off as “the girl”. What’s more, I see that her quiet dignity is meant to counter the manic energy of Simon and the male posturing of Franck. Still, most of her delivery seemed like an odd choice.
If the film has any one flaw, other than Dawson’s occasional off-key performance, it’s that it does briefly fall victim to the “What a twist!” syndrome in its final act. I realise that manipulation is crucial to the story, but there’s manipulation and then there’s predicting the future. Humans have only evolved to do one of these things convincingly.
Still, the film as a whole is able to hang more on its story than its spectacle. It’s nice to see that Boyle hasn’t let things like winning Oscars or producing the Olympics opening ceremony slow him down. Or maybe that’s just what he wants us to think?